The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

February 19, 2014

Illini hope to break out of long slump

BY JIM COTTER sports@dancomnews.com
The Commercial-News

---- — CHAMPAIGN — It’s no secret that the Illinois men’s basketball team has struggled to win games lately.

Since beginning the Big Ten season 2-0, the Illini (14-12 overall, 3-10 in the Big Ten) have lost 11 out of 12 games and have fallen to dead last in the conference standings as a result.

The latest setback was a 48-39 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday, a game that Illinois led 23-20 at the half.

“The second half of the Ohio State game led to some discouragement by the players, but they always come back to practice with their heads up and ready to go”, Groce said of the attitude of the players during this stretch.

The Illini will get another chance to get back on the winning track this evening when they travel to Williams Arena in Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers in their only regular season meeting of the season at 8 p.m.

“All in all, practice was chippy yesterday,” Groce said of his team’s preparation for the Golden Gophers.

Minnesota (17-9 overall, 6-7 in the league) is coming off of a road win in Evanston on Sunday, where they defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 54-48 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and is overachieving this season under first-year coach Richard Pitino.

The Golden Gophers have contributed much of their success to DeAndre Mathieu, a transfer from Central Arizona College that was a walk-on as a freshman at Morehead State.

Mathieu is averaging just under 12 points per game for Minnesota, second on the team to Andre Hollins, who averages nearly 15 points per game. Elliott Eliason, the Golden Gophers’ talented center, isn’t a threat in the scoring column, but leads the team in rebounds with 7.4 boards per game.

“Minnesota is really talented offensively, and have a couple of guys that can post the ball really well in Maurice Walker and Eliason). They also have multiple guys who can drive and shoot it,” Groce said.

Walker and Eliason are older players, so that helps with experience, something that the Illini lack off the bench.

The Illini, who have struggled as of late shooting the basketball, have kept themselves in games with their defense, but as Groce says, it’s hard to maintain that when a team relies on defense.

“When your offense is struggling like ours is, it puts immense pressure on the defense, kind of like when a pitcher in baseball only gives up a run, but still loses 1-0,” Groce said. “We’ve done okay rebounding, and adequately on defense, but the bottom line is we need to play better offensively.”

However, as not to place blame on any one person for their inadequacies this season, Groce commented that several guys need to step up offensively and play better, but offered no excuses.

“I don’t like excuses, I’m not into that,” Groce said.

Tonight’s game will be televised on the Big Ten Network, and will be heard locally on WDNL-FM 102.1 and WDAN-AM 1490, as well as statewide on the Fighting Illini Sports Network.

Jim Cotter is a freelance writer for the Commercial-News, and can be reached for comment at cott83@yahoo.com

Game 27 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Site -- Williams Arena in Minneapolis When -- 8 p.m., today Records -- Ohio State 19-6 overall, 6-6 in the Big Ten Conference; Illinois 14-11 overall, 3-9 in the Big Ten Conference. Rankings -- Both teams are unrated. Television -- Big Ten Network Radio -- Fighting Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1. Previous results -- Illinois leads the all-time series 118-64 over Minnesota, and the Illini won the last two meetings last season, a 57-53 won on Feb. 10, 2013 and 51-49 at the Big Ten Tournament on March 14, 2013.. Last games -- The Illini suffered its 10th loss in their past 11 games with a 67-58 setback against the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday in Champaign; while the Golden Gophers defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 54-48 on Thursday in Evanston Up next -- Illinois will return to the State Farm Center on Feb. 26 when they host the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 8 p.m.; while Minnesota will take on the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. Starting lineups -- Illinois: G Tracy Abrams, 6-2, jr.; G Kendrick Nunn, 6-3, fr.; G Rayvonte Rice, 6-4, jr.; F Malcolm Hill, 6-6, fr.; C Nnanna Egwu, 6-11, jr. Minnesota: G Andre Hollins,6-2 jr.; G Austin Hollins, 6-4, sr.; G DeAndre Mathieu, 5-9, jr.; F Joey King, 6-9, so.; C Elilott Eliason, 6-11, jr. Scoring leaders -- Illinois: Rice 16.6 points per game, Abrams 11.2, Joseph Bertrand 10.0 Minnesota: Andre Hollins 14.9, Mathieu 11.19, Austin Hollins 11.2 Rebounding leaders -- Illinois: Rice 6.0 per game, Egwu 5.6, Jon Ekey 5.4, Bertrand 4.7. Minnesota: Eliason 7.4, Austin Hollins 5.8, Maurice Walker 4.1 Assist leaders -- Illinois: Abrams 3.2, Jaylon Tate 2.2, Rice 1.7. Minnesota: Mathieu 4.3, Austin Hollins 2.4, Andre Hollins 2.5