COLUMBUS, Ohio — During the media timeouts in the second half of Illinois’ 68-55 loss to No. 14 Ohio State on Sunday at Value City Arena, the Illini coaches and players jumped off the bench to greet the five active players near midcourt, shouting words of encouragement and delivering high-fives.
Illinois was never within fewer than nine points of the Buckeyes, but the positive vibes and optimism still permeated through the team.
And despite losing two straight — and 3 of 4 — entering Thursday’s Big Ten tournament opener as the No. 8 seed against ninth-seeded Minnesota, there doesn’t appear to be any panic or apprehension from first-year coach John Groce’s outfit entering the postseason.
“I thought our leadership was good today. We certainly can get better and play better than we’ve played during this stretch, but we’re going to stay poised and understand that we’re going to learn what we need to learn heading into Thursday’s game,” Groce said.
The message has been the same all year whether it was during Illinois’ 12-0 start when it jumped to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, or during the 2-7 start to the conference season that included a lopsided loss to Northwestern at home: Just keep getting better.
Illinois shot 35 percent from the floor Sunday and allowed Deshaun Thomas (19 points), Aaron Craft (14 points, six assists, three steals) and Lenzelle Smith Jr. (10 points, six rebounds) to reach double figures for Ohio State (23-7, 13-5), but the Illini feel like they’re still taking strides in the right direction with postseason play on the horizon.
“Our staff kind of controls that environment and our guys have been great with that all year,” Groce said. “We’ve been very positive. We’ve stayed poised through the entire season, and that’s not going to be any different heading into this week.”
Thursday’s 11 a.m. tip at Chicago’s United Center will be the rubber match between the Illini (21-11, 8-10) and Gophers, whose only Big Ten win away from Williams Arena this season occurred in Champaign in January.
“Those guys are going to probably come out with an edge. We beat them at home,” Tracy Abrams (nine points, four assists, three steals) said. “We definitely have to have a clear mind right now. Coach mentioned Season 3 coming up, just having a fresh mind-set and be ready to go.”
Another positive for the Illini will be the venue. After five straight years in Indianapolis, the Big Ten tournament will return to Chicago, where Illinois is 15-5 in the conference’s postseason showcase.
Illinois beat Auburn in December at the United Center.
“It’s fun, especially since we’ve played there the last four years,” Brandon Paul (21 points, five rebounds) said. “It’s closer to home for many of us; we’ve got a lot of Chicago guys. We’ve got to come out with the mind-set we can compete with any team, and we’ve got to play with a chip on our shoulders.”