Illini smilin' more these days

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Philosophically, Illinois likes to carry itself with the same demeanor throughout the course of the season, win or lose. When the Illini had lost eight straight, the message coming out of the Ubben Basketball Complex was a positive one, though the smiles didn’t come as easy.

Having won two straight and three of five entering Saturday’s tilt against No. 18 Michigan State (3 p.m., ESPN2) at the Breslin Center, that positive message is more believable. Guys are smiling, cracking jokes and walking with an extra bounce in their step as the season approaches its final week.

“It feels great. The team’s spirit is rising in the locker room,” freshman Malcolm Hill said. “We’re feeling better about how we’ve been playing because we can see each other getting better.”

Truth is, the Illini haven’t had much to hang their heads about this season. The effort has been as constant as their message. It just hasn’t shown up in the form of wins as often during the Big Ten season as they would have preferred. So with the recent results validating the effort, it’s only natural these guys would feel good about the direction they’re headed.

“It’s good to be rewarded for doing the right things. I think that’s important. I think our guys have done that. That part has been gratifying for them,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “It’s good for them from a mental perspective to be rewarded like we have the last two games with wins for playing the game the right way.”

It’s gratifying, but the plan now is to remain hungry and focus on building off the last three weeks. It only gets tougher, with the next two games against the top two teams in the league (No. 18 Michigan State, No. 16 Michigan), followed by the season finale against No. 20 Iowa.

“We’re certainly not satisfied. We still have a long way to go,” Groce said. “I think we are better now certainly than we were a month ago.”

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