CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois senior class is 0 for 3 against Missouri. First-year coach John Groce has heard the players talking about it, but he’s making sure their focus is geared toward Saturday’s opportunity and not about revenge for past defeats.
“The one thing I will say, regardless of what their record is previously, I’ve got news for them: It ain’t changing,” Groce said. “It has really no effect on Saturday night’s game. This is a separate game than the other three they have played.”
Groce said the 10th-ranked Illini have had extra pep in their step ahead of Saturday’s tilt with No. 12 Missouri (9-1) at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. It’s understandable for the seniors in their last regular-season shot at the Tigers.
“It’s real important. I want to be able to leave some type of legacy at Illinois and this is the type of game that can help me do that, as well as my teammates,” senior Brandon Paul said. “I think we’re all focusing on one thing, especially the seniors, we want to get this one, it’s our last go-around.”
The oddsmakers have pegged the 12-0 Illini as slight underdogs. Nothing new there.
Few picked them to win at Gonzaga. While sitting in their hotel rooms waiting for the late start against the Bulldogs two weeks ago, the players saw predictions that included CBSSports’ Doug Gottlieb saying the Illini would get crushed.
“They listened to the prognosticators and that probably gave them a little more of a chip. They were ready to play and they played with great energy and effort,” Groce said.
Groce said assistant coach Brandon Miller informed him that Illinois is one of three teams ranked in the Top 25 that owns wins against three teams inside the RPI Top 100.
“People are going to doubt us, no matter what,” Paul said. “We could win the next 10 games and there would be somebody (saying) ‘Oh, they’re going to run out.’ So, we’re just going to continue to compete and get better every day.”
With finals complete, the Illini don’t have any other responsibilities outside of basketball until mid-January. It’s a favorite time of the year for Groce, who especially enjoys practice and teaching.
“When it gets to where they have all ball, and they’ll have that here for a little while, I think that’s good,” Groce said. “It gives us a chance to lock in and teach and get better and identify things and hone in on them even more. We’ll certainly use that to our advantage.”
D.J. Richardson said he’ll use the time to get some extra shots up at Ubben Basketball Complex. He’ll also fine-tune his video-game skills. He and most of his teammates are big “Call of Duty” fans.
“A lot of guys are good. We all compete; me, Sam (McLaurin) and Rayvonte (Rice), we all have PlayStation 3 and we play together online,” he said. Tyler (Griffey), Myke Henry, they’ve got an XBox 360. We always go to Rayvonte’s house and play there. We’ll go to Myke Henry’s apartment and play with them.”
Portland Trailblazers rookie center Meyers Leonard, a former lllini, gets in on the action, too.
“Meyers plays with Tyler. I’m not really an XBox guy anymore, I moved up to the PlayStation 3,” Richardson said. “I have both systems, but I don’t really play my XBox anymore. I’m more of a PlayStation 3 guy.”
Last year’s Braggin’ Rights game represented the coming-out party for Joseph Bertrand. Then a redshirt sophomore, Bertrand exploded for what was then a career-high 19 points on 9-for-9 shooting. It was the second time in his career he had scored more than 10 points.
“It was definitely a memorable game for me, but still have a sour taste in your mouth because of the loss,” Bertrand said of Missouri’s 78-74 win. “Whatever happened, it really wasn’t good enough to win the game.”
The performance isn’t something his teammates bring up often in conversation with Bertrand, who is averaging 8.6 points and 4.5 rebounds off the bench this season.
“It was a big performance. But it’s a whole new year, we’ve got a new team, new coaching staff, new plays, different type of system. It’ll be different,” Richardson said. “I won’t be surprised if Joe has a big game like he had last year.”
Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said Thursday the Jan. 5 Big Ten home opener against Ohio State and the Jan. 27 game against Michigan at the Assembly Hall have sold out.
The Michigan game was initially a part of the Big Ten mini-pack of three games that included the Jan. 9 game against Minnesota and the Jan. 17 game with Northwestern. Since the Michigan game has sold out, the Feb. 3 game against Wisconsin is now a part of the deal.
Brown said tickets for the Feb. 7 game against No. 6 Indiana still are available.
— Marcus Jackson