Illinois basketball is looking nice and shiny after a 7-0 start....and now a #22 ranking in both polls has put an added early target on the back of a veteran-laden team.
The Illini sailed through the Maui Invitational with shocking ease....rolling up victory margins of 30, 23 and 17 points. They never trailed...and were only seriously threatened briefly by Butler in the Maui title game.
The Illini have also had a couple of really close calls. The game in Honolulu against Hawaii was just about completely lost when the Illini fell behind by 16 points in the 2nd half....but to their credit.... the Illini fought and clawed their way back into the game and gave themselves a shot to win at the end of overtime.
The Gardner-Webb game bothered me from the moment I saw it on the schedule. No coach anywhere is EVER going to offer excuses for "jet-lag". But the Illini were clearly struggling to regain their "Maui magic" on Sunday after flying across 4 time zones on Thanksgiving Day. There was too much dribbling around the perimeter of the Gardner-Webb zone defense. The smaller Bulldogs battled them even on the boards..... and beat them to just about every loose ball. Having an opposing coach that knew John Groce and his system about as well as anyone...having played with Coach Groce in college at Taylor University... and having coached with him at Ohio ....certainly helped the Bulldogs. Plus...the Illini were facing a decent team. Gardner -Webb led Iowa by 20 in Iowa City (eventually lost) .and won at Depaul 24 hours after losing a home game in their home state of North Carolina. Throw in the fact that the always entertaining made-for-TV Big 10-ACC Challenge was on the horizon at mid-week....and you had all the ingredients for a shocking Illini loss.
It almost happened.
Fortunately Joe Bertrand and Tyler Griffey made sure the Illini didnt stub their toes.....Bertrand playing with excellent energy in a sluggish first half for his teammates....while Griffey hit the game-winner from NBA range to rally the Illini from behind. It was a close call....but one that probably most people wont remember in March...because...hey...they won.
John Groce has been very quick to praise his team and the 7-0 start. But he also knows that there is a lot of work to be done. Rebounding has to get better....starting Wednesday night against a very good rebounding team in Georgia Tech. Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory is a Tom Izzo disiciple....and you know how well the Spartans control the glass game to game. Plus his Dayton team at the time put a hurt on the Illini in the NIT quarterfinals a few years ago. The Illini also need more offensive production from their big men. This is a wing-oriented team...but in the Big Ten Conference you need to be able to get some production inside as well.
Should be a fun one Wednesday night at the Hall. Hopefully the newly-ranked Illini can continue the promising momentum of the early portion of this season.