These Illini know their way from the outhouse all the way up to the penthouse. And Purdue is here to send them back. — Your author
Resilience is a special quality of youth ... the ability to return to an original status after some sort of deformation.
Illini basketball was in a “deformed state” on consecutive January dates with Wisconsin and Northwestern. Those were the lows in a 17-8 season. You can call it a slump but it was worse than that. They trailed the Badgers 14-0 and 34-9. The 68-54 loss to Northwestern was so embarrassing that distraught fans booed as they left early from the Assembly Hall.
For Brandon Paul, the Kohl Center goals had covers on them. Tyler Griffey lost his starting role. Tracy Abrams played a game without an assist.
Would they ... could they recover? The blogosphere offered little hope. Losses started piling up. Criticism was rampant. ESPN experts, mindful of last year’s collapse, were saying, “Look out below. Here comes Illinois!”
Paul heard it all. So did D.J. Richardson. The players were not walking around in a bubble. This was fast-developing deja vu, reviving nightmarish memories of last year’s 2-12 finish.
Imagine yourself in Griffey’s position, missing 22 straight three-pointers. Maligned and ridiculed (was 22 a record?), could you have mustered the courage to take another shot?
Then the calendar flipped and February soon found John Groce’s gang back in the penthouse, enjoying SportsCenter treatment with clutch wins against Indiana and Minnesota. Griffey rose overnight from bum to historic hero, lifted on shoulders after his layup ignited a riotous celebration.
Paul also lost his starting spot (for a day), and responded with 21 points against Indiana. In Minneapolis, Abrams missed his first start of the season and was riding an 0-for-10 shooting slump when he hit two late baskets to salvage it, 57-53. How quickly the tide turns.
Return to form
Lesson learned: If you can’t handle the low spots, you’ll never get to enjoy the high ones.
“These losses were hard,” Griffey acknowledged. “It’s tough on any team’s psyche. But credit our mental toughness. We came back from double-digit deficits. We just kept encouraging each other. All our huddles are positive.
“I won’t point to any particular game as the low point. I was struggling. Everyone knows it. I just had to work myself out of it. But nothing’s really changed. We’re the same kids, just joking around in the locker room and having fun. We have a one-game mind-set. Our only concern now is Purdue.”
Richardson was recognized Monday alongside Wisconsin’s Ben Brust as Big Ten Co-Player of the Week. It’s been a bumpy four-year journey for the Peorian.
“The award is a blessing,” he said, “but we’ve got a lot more to accomplish as a team.
“I was never down. I was missing shots, and I’ve been through that before. I just kept shooting and I came out with a 30-point game at Nebraska (he is 20 for 44 on treys in the last six games).
“I knew it would turn around sometime. I think we showed a lot of maturity in coming back to defeat a Top 25 team (Minnesota) after we beat Indiana.”
Heads still up
Groce is no small factor, firmly reminding in Tuesday’s press conference:
“In this room or one like it, I said we need to get it in our skulls that we’re going to continue to shoot the basketball. Our assistants do a great job with their position groups in staying connected and in the moment. You have to fight the temptation to let disappointment affect how you act.
“People assume because you lose that you’re not getting better,” Groce said. “But we look at it more objectively, and we’ve seen dramatic improvement over the last six games ... even when we weren’t winning. The teams that get better day by day in February and March, when it becomes a grind, are the ones that max out (in the NCAA tournament).”
Groce quoted his coach, Paul Patterson, who topped the 700-win mark at Taylor University last season: “Kids 18 to 22 can forgive and forget faster than you think.”
“I told Griffey to keep shooting. He started hitting, and that isn’t his only improvement. I thought for awhile he was hurting us defensively, and we challenged him. His defense is grading out twice what it was early in the Big Ten schedule, and he had eight rebounds at Minnesota. I like his mind-set right now.”
Seniors Griffey, Richardson and Paul have never beaten Purdue. This will be one challenging step in their one-at-a-time effort to revive a season that just a week ago was in a mudslide. Because of their resiliency, they’re still on dry land.
EDITOR’S NOTE TO THOSE WHO LEFT EARLY THURSDAY: Those who won’t sit through a debacle will never see a miracle.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.