What Illinois managed to do in the aftermath of their win over No. 1 Indiana on Thursday night was going to reveal an awful lot about John Groce’s team and prospects for the remainder of the season.
After the Fighting Illini’s 57-53 win at No. 18 Minnesota on Sunday night, it’s safe to say that this group has turned a corner in regards to both defense and toughness. And that has Illinois headed in the right direction when it comes to earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Illinois got off to a cold start from the field, going more than nine minutes without a made field goal to start the game. But unlike the majority of their games to start Big Ten play the Illini defended, which allowed them to remain within striking distance against a Golden Gopher team that was without senior forward Rodney Williams (shoulder).
Minnesota shot just 38% for the game and committed 13 turnovers, and the combination of those issues and Illinois hitting 11 three-pointers led to the Illini leaving Williams Arena with the win.
Tyler Griffey, the hero on Thursday night, scored 16 points to lead Illinois with D.J. Richardson (13 points) and Brandon Paul (ten) also reaching double figures. Trevor Mbakwe led the Golden Gophers with 13 points and ten rebounds.
The win pulls Illinois to within a game of Minnesota and Purdue, who are tied for sixth in the Big Ten at 5-6, and the Illini host the Boilermakers on Wednesday. That game begins a stretch of seven games to end the regular season, and outside of trips to No. 3 Michigan and No. 10 Ohio State the Illini will be favored in each of those contests.
Placing Illinois in the role of “favorite” shouldn’t be as troublesome after their last two performances, with Groce’s team showing both a stronger commitment to the defensive end of the floor and a tougher mindset.
If Illinois continues to develop in those areas they’ll find themselves in the NCAA tournament.
Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.
The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.
The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.
They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.
That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.
So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.
Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:
With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.
At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes
“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:
“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”
“It’s all money.”
Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.
Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .
Want to talk about coaching luxuries?
Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.