CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach John Groce said earlier in the week he wasn’t going to make wholesale changes despite starting Big Ten play 1-3.
He didn’t make major changes, but there was a change in the starting lineup Thursday against Northwestern.
Sam McLaurin, who had come off the bench the first 18 games of the season, started in place of Tyler Griffey.
After getting off to a hot start to the season, Griffey has struggled of late, making 7 of 34 (20.6 percent) three-point attempts in his last 10 games.
It’s the first change to the starting lineup all season. Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Nnanna Egwu have started all 19 games this season for Illinois.
Former Illini big man Robert Archibald, who recently retired after 10 years of pro ball in the NBA and overseas, attended Thursday night’s game.
The 6-foot-10 Archibald also attended the game in his hometown of St. Louis against Missouri and he made it to the United Center for the Auburn game.
He’s a fan of blossoming Illini big man Egwu.
“It’s great to see. A kid like that who starts later, his progression is only going to continue to get better the more experience he gets,” Archibald said. “Physically he has all the tools. He’s a blank slate, even at this point. Other guys are getting close to as good as they’re going to be, whereas he isn’t a finished product, he still has a ton of room.”
Thursday’s game featured four former members of the Illinois Wolves AAU club. Illinois’ Joseph Bertrand, Abrams and Egwu were all a part of Mike Mullins’ club.
Northwestern’s David Sobolewski is also a former Wolf.
Mullins planned to attend Thursday’s game, but he couldn’t make it.
Mullins spoke last week about the growth his two Illinois sophomores, Abrams and Egwu, have made this season.
“You’re seeing moments, short clips, and sooner or later it’s going to turn into a full season. That’s what (Egwu) did in high school. Any normal freshman it takes time to adjust,” he said. “Tracy’s played his whole life and he’s a different player from this year to last year. He played 30 minutes a game last year.
“To me, this is Nnanna’s freshman year of college basketball. Once he smoothes out the peaks and valleys, that consistent play will be at a high level and he’ll be a heck of a player going forward.”
With former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Drew Crawford out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury and JerShon Cobb sitting out the season for disciplinary issues, Northwestern was in need of someone to step up and take on some of the scoring load.
Former walk-on Reggie Hearn has filled the void (20 points).
Hearn entered Thursday’s game leading the Wildcats in scoring at 13.7 points per game.
“He’s really picked it up from last year,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “This is like a continuation, a progression. He came here and has just gotten better and better at a lot of things. Even when Drew was here before he was injured, he was close to our leading scorer. He rebounds, defends, just a good player.”
Hearn injured his ankle in the loss to Stanford last month and is still recovering.
“He was having a very good game against Stanford, he played like 22 minutes and had 17 or 18 points,” Carmody said. “He’s still not 100 percent. He’s not jumping well right now, but he’s giving everything he’s got.
“If I knew he was going to be this good I would have given him a scholarship as a freshman.”
Despite the three-game losing streak, the Illinois program is still considered one of the surprises in the Big Ten under first-year coach Groce.
Carmody has recognized the new energy.
“Obviously they’re having a very nice year and things are going very well for them. You’re going to have some losses,” Carmody said. “The guys are playing together extremely well with each other and it seems like the offense is moving very well. I don’t want to compare it to last year. You’ve got some similar players, but you have different guys in different roles. They’re upbeat and it shows on the court.
One of Mullins’ former players, Sobolewski, emerged from the locker room before the game with his wrist heavily taped. The Northwestern point guard is known for diving on the floor and into the stands for loose balls.
He’s also reckless in taking his 190-pound body into the lane against beefier Big Ten frontcourts.
“I wish he wasn’t flying through there going in the stands all the time, eventually that can catch up to you. He’s a tough kid. Most of the time it seems like he’s doing that because things have sort of stagnated a bit on offense and we’re standing around so he puts his head down and flies through there,” Carmody said. “Sometimes he’s successful and sometimes he’s not. I don’t like him going through there so fast. On the baseline and on the floor a lot, I don’t think that’ll be good in the long run.”