Illinois faces tough test at Big Ten Tournament

Illinois faces tough test at Big Ten Tournament
March 12, 2013, 5:30 pm
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Jack McCarthy

Which Fighting Illini team will show up at the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament this week?

Will it be the one that rolled to 12-straight wins to start the season, ranked as high as 10th nationally and claimed quality victories over Butler, Gonzaga, Indiana and Ohio State?

Or could it be a group that dropped seven of their first nine conference games and three of their final four as they appeared to skid into the tourney as a No. 8 seed?

The answer comes quickly as the Illini (21-11) meets No. 9 seed Minnesota (20-11) at 11 a.m. Thursday as the Big Ten Tournament returns to Chicago's United Center for the first time since 2007.

First-year Illini coach John Groce said the regular season finish was deceptive.

"We played some good basketball," he said. "The fact is we were able to go 6-3 in our last nine games and three of our losses were to teams with a combined 51-5 home record," he said.

That second half performance is heartening heading into Thursday's tournament opener.

"We got off to a 2-7 start (in conference play) and then really, really responded," he said. "They showed a lot of resiliency and have continued to grow. We need to make a few more shots right now but we're capable of doing that."

Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue all ended tied for seventh with 8-10 Big Ten records. Purdue claimed the No. 7 seed based on a better overall mark.

The Illini and Gophers split regular season games. Minnesota won 84-67 on Jan. 9 at Assembly Hall while Illinois took a 57-53 decision on Feb. 10 in Minneapolis.

"They (the Gophers) are terrific on the glass, The Hollins' kids (Andre and Austin) can really make plays and make shots," Groce said. "(Trevor) Mbakwe is a monster inside -- a double-double type of guy -- and Rodney Williams is quite talented."

All four averaged in double figures with Andre Hollins tops with a 13.9 average and 40.5 percent in 3 point shooting.

The Golden Gophers have lost two straight and are 3-8 on the road.

Illinois' attack starts with senior guard Brandon Paul, who scored 21 points in last Sunday's 69-55 loss at Ohio State. A first-team all-stater at Gurnee-Warren High School, he carries a 16.3 point average into the tournament, but Groce said he brings a lot more

"Brandon Paul has been playing really, really well lately -- especially from a complete standpoint: rebounding, he's had some high assist games, he's defending better, he's been very well-rounded," Groce said. "It's a big reason why we've been playing well. The better he plays, the better off it is for us."

Joining Paul in double figures is senior guard D.J. Richardson. The Peoria native averages 12.3 points per game and has a team-high 75 three-pointers. Tracy Abrams, a guard who starred at Chicago-Mt. Carmel, has a 10.6 scoring average and a team-best 109 assists.

Groce knows all about March success. In four seasons at Ohio, he guided the Bobcats to two NCAA tourney upsets as a lower seed, including a run to the 2011-12 Sweet 16 that ended with an overtime loss to North Carolina.

The Big Ten Tournament offers Illinois a chance at redemption after falling out of the conference race at midseason. But it's also a grueling stretch with a potential four games in four days if they reach the championship game.

The last three would likely be against teams in the nation's top 25, starting with Friday's game as the winner meets top-seed Indiana.

"The league is as deep as I've ever seen it, it's incredible." Groce said. "You're playing on consecutive days, you're playing teams a second or third time. (So) it's not about style points in a conference tournament setting, it's more about trying to survive and advance and play better than our opponent on that particular day."

The Big Ten said all tournament games are sold out in advance for the first time in conference history. A handful of standing room tickets were available early in the week.