CHAMPAIGN – First-year Illinois coach John Groce’s teams have a way of turning it on for the postseason.
In Groce’s four seasons at Ohio, the Bobcats went to the NCAA tournament twice, racking up wins over Georgetown in 2010 and Michigan in 2012 before losing a close one to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
He’s about to find out if his Illini have that kind of postseason fire in them.
Illinois (21-11, 8-10 Big Ten) opens the Big Ten tournament Thursday as the No. 8 seed against No. 9 Minnesota. With wins over Indiana, Gonzaga and Ohio State among its 21 victories, Illinois is a good bet to get to the NCAA tournament, but a win or two in Chicago couldn’t hurt and might help build momentum for a team that lost three of its last four regular-season games.
Those Ohio teams that made noise in March started by winning the Mid-American Conference tournament in both 2010 and 2012.
Groce didn’t have a clear answer for questions about what kind of mindset it took for those Bobcat teams to peak at the right time to make nice postseason runs.
“Physically loose and mentally tight, or focused,” is how he tried to explain it Tuesday.
But he downplayed the possibility that a great run of momentum was even necessary for a team to make that kind of run.
“If they think a win a month ago or a loss four or five days ago is going to have anything to do with Thursday’s game at 11 a.m., then we’re not very mentally tough,” Groce said. “If you lack toughness in March, then that’s a problem.”
Groce has emphasized the need to be mentally tough since he arrived in Champaign a year ago, and his Illinois team’s toughness has been a source of concern since long before he arrived.
The ups and downs the team went through before he arrived – particularly players such as Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, seniors this year – have been well chronicled. Illinois has been to one NCAA tournament in the past three seasons, and one National Invitational Tournament. The Illini also have endured the collapse last season that sent Bruce Weber packing for Kansas State and brought Groce to town.
Just this season, they’ve rattled off upsets over some of the country’s best teams and won the early season EA Sports Maui Invitational, and lost at home to Northwestern while barely surviving Nebraska.
The most immediate problem for Illinois, the one that was most obvious in losses to Iowa and Ohio State in the final two regular-season games, was shooting. The Illini weren’t very good at it – hitting only 31.6 percent of the shots.
“Part of it is we got some good shots we didn’t make,” Groce said. “Part of it is Ohio State is top 10 in the country defensively. ... And then Iowa has kind of made their calling with their defense.”
While Illinois can be a challenge to figure out, Minnesota is downright confusing.
The Gophers (20-11, 8-10) beat illinois by 17 in Champaign in early January, when they were No. 8 in The Associated Press Top 25. Since then, they’ve fallen well out of the Top 25, and now they’ve lost six of their past nine, including back-to-back games against Nebraska and Purdue to finish the regular season.
Groce said Tuesday that there’s at least a chance that Joseph Bertrand will be back for Illinois by Thursday. The redshirt junior guard missed Sunday’s loss at Ohio State with a shoulder injury. If he can’t go against the Gophers, Groce said, Bertrand should return Friday if the Illini advance to play Indiana.
Bertrand usually is Illinois’ best bet to ignite the team off the bench. He averages 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 23 minutes a game.
If Illinois finds a way past Minnesota on Thursday, the Illini would have the benefit of recent experience on their side. They played three games in three days at the Maui Invitational, and a win Thursday would mean facing the Hoosiers less than 24 hours later. In those situations, Groce said, coaches tend to give players less pregame instruction and let them play a little more loosely.
“I think you’ve got to be careful saying you want them to play totally instinctively and not think at all,” he said. “I don’t think you want them overthinking, either. ... You probably water it down. You don’t have a lot of time.”