BY JIM COTTER
Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce tries to get the most out of his players, both in practice and in games. The hard work may be finally paying huge dividends.
The Fighting Illini returns to action tonight when they welcome the Penn State Nittany Lions to the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
The Illini, winners of four straight games and climbing in the Big Ten standings, currently are 19-8 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten.
“Obviously we’re excited about the direction that our defense is going right now, and the guys have done a great job of focusing on game plans,” Groce said.
The starting lineup for the previous few games has been based on how players have graded out on defense in games, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that players that aren’t in the lineup are not contributing.
“I find it hilarious that people make a big deal over Tracy (Abrams) not being in the starting lineup, but in all actuality, he played 30 minutes. It is all about how they grade out on defense both in practice and in games, and Joseph (Bertrand) graded out a little better than Abrams did,” Groce said.
The Illini held Northwestern scoreless for nearly 10 minutes from the end of the first half into the second, all the while tightening up their defense and limiting the Wildcats from shooting beyond the perimeter.
“I thought we didn’t give them a lot of clean looks, and we knew that they were going to come in and shoot threes, and make some,” Groce said about the preparation that he had for Northwestern.
Brandon Paul, who only scored eight points against the Wildcats, probably played one of his best games of the season, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out five assists.
“I thought Brandon had one of his best all-around games on Sunday, and he doesn’t necessarily need to score 20 points for us to be successful,” Groce said.
The Nittany Lions come into the game with the Illini at 8-17 overall, and are winless in conference this season at 0-13. Penn State suffered a huge blow to their program early in the season when preseason all-Big Ten player Tim Frazier was lost for the season. In Frazier’s absence, the Nittany Lions have had to rely on D. J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall to shoulder the load. Before Frazier was injured, he was averaging just over 16 points per game.
“Their (Penn State’s) two guards, Marshall and Newbill really push the ball, and even though they have been through a lot of adversity this season, Coach (Patrick) Chambers has had them playing better basketball the past couple of games,” Groce said.
“But it is not about them, it is about us, and this is the next game on the schedule, and you have to bring it every single night and build on what we have done in the past few games.”
Tonight’s game is set to tip off at 7:15 p.m., and can be seen on the Big Ten Network, as well as WDAN-AM 1490, WDNL-102.1 and statewide on the Illini Sports Network.