CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois coach John Groce lays his head down at night after a game, he wants to be able to say — win or lose — “Those are my guys.”
The first-year coach didn’t feel that way Jan. 12. Not after Wisconsin delivered a 74-51 beatdown of his then-12th-ranked team at the Kohl Center.
“We didn’t play well at all in that game and they were absolutely terrific,” Groce said.
Groce’s sentiment about the dreadful visit to Madison is the consensus in the Illinois locker room.
“That was an embarrassing game up in Madison,” senior D.J. Richardson said. “We weren’t focused as a team. We went up there, didn’t execute our game plan. We didn’t do what was on the scouting report.”
The Illini get another chance today against the Badgers (2:30 p.m., BTN).
Despite a 1-3 record since that meeting three weeks ago, nothing but positive vibes are permeating through the Illinois locker room. The Illini are coming off an 80-75 loss at No. 13 Michigan State on Thursday, a game in which Illinois played as well offensively as they have all season, Groce said.
Illinois scored its 75 points on 74 possessions.
“I think the execution of our sets has gotten better. I think our shot selection has gotten better,” Groce said. “I just think our defensive rotations have gotten better, guys are being held accountable more defensively. There’s a lot of things that have gotten better. I think individual players have improved. Nnanna’s (Egwu) gotten better, Tracy’s (Abrams) still getting better.”
Following the loss in Madison, Groce called out Richardson, Brandon Paul, Sam McLaurin and Tracy Abrams — the team’s captains — for the lackluster effort.
“Come ready to play every night,” McLaurin said. “That was one of the earlier Big Ten games. Next to the Ohio State game, that was the earliest we’ve played. We’ve got to make sure all our guys, as leaders, are ready to go no matter what time tipoff is.”
Since that game, McLaurin’s role has changed. The fifth-year transfer from Coastal Carolina has started every game since then, averaging 6.8 points.
He said earlier this season the reason he decided to transfer to Illinois was for an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. Closing the season strong, starting with today, would enhance that likelihood for a team that’s currently on the NCAA bubble with most projected brackets.
“I think we still have an opportunity, the door’s still open for us,” McLaurin said. “At the same time we’ve got to come out a whole lot better this second half of Big Ten play.”