The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

March 1, 2014

Illini looking for a bigger reward

BY CHAD DARE cdare@dancomnews.com
The Commercial-News

---- — EAST LANSING, Mich. — Illinois coach John Groce views victories as rewards for his team doing things the right way.

After losing 10 out of 11 games, the Fighting Illini have a little better bounce in their step after back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Nebraska.

“I think its good to be rewarded for doing things the right way, but we’re not satisfied,’’ said Groce, as Illinois prepares for today’s game at Michigan State. “We still have a long way to go. We can certainly get better on the offensive end, but I like the progress the team has made.

“It’s good from a mental perspective to be rewarded for the past two games.’’

Groce believes the Fighting Illini (16-12 overall and 5-10 in the Big Ten) had a complete effort on both ends of the floor in the wins over the Golden Gophers (62-49) and the Cornhuskers (60-49).

“Do I think the last couple of games have been the most complete that we’ve played on both ends, simultaneously? Yes,’’ he said. “Is that a good thing to be doing in February? Yes.

“I think the guys have gotten better and I think our team has gotten better.’’

Just how much better will be determined this afternoon when Illinois faces the 18th-rated Michigan State Spartans at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.

“They are not only one of the better teams in our conference, but I feel they are one of the better teams in the country,’’ Groce said. “When you play a team like Michigan State, you can’t play just one end of the floor and expect the result that you want.’’

The Spartans (22-6 overall, 11-4 in the Big Ten) are expected to be back at full strength. Junior Branden Dawson, who has missed the last nine games with broken right hand, will be coming off the bench while senior guard Keith Appling, who has missed three of the last six, is a projected starter for Michigan State.

But according to Groce, the additions has not really changed the preparation for Illinois.

“They have a system and style of play which they have been very consistent with for the most part during the decade,’’ he said. “I don’t know if that changes a whole lot. They are really good at what they do.

“Obviously, we know how dangerous they are in transition. They are a great shooting team, they are No. 1 in 3-point field goals made and percentage. Defensively, they don’t beat themselves, they are always in the right position, they block out well. They are difficult to get easy baskets against them. They have a great depth, especially with everyone healthy.’’

While Michigan State enters today’s game with an NCAA Tournament berth firmly in hand, Illinois still has some work to do to secure a postseason berth.

With back-to-back wins, the Illini are guaranteed to finish the year at .500, but one more victory would guarantee the team a winning record and more than likely, a berth in one of the postseason tournaments.

“We always have that at the forefront of our minds,’’ Groce said. “From the beginning of the season, we walk about it and then we kind of let it rest.’’

Groce said the team basically focuses on playing good basketball and knowing that results of that will take care of their postseason goals.

“We want to be a team that plays in postseason,’’ he said. “Ideally, we want to be a team in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a goal of our team every year.’’

It’s unlikely that Illinois can make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large participant, the Fighting Illini basically will need to win the Big Ten Tournament title to reach the 68-team tournament for the second year in a row.

Today’s game is set for 3 p.m. tipoff and it can be seen on ESPN2, while the Fighting Illini Sports Network, including WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1, will provide radio coverage.

Game 29 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Michigan State Spartans Site -- Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich. When -- 3 p.m., today Records -- Illinois 16-12 overall, 5-10 in the Big Ten Conference; Michigan State 22-6 overall, 11-4 in the Big Ten Rankings -- The Spartans are No. 18 in the latest Associated Press Poll; the Illini are not rated. Television -- ESPN2 Radio -- Fighting Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.