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.