CHAMPAIGN — With nine newcomers on the roster starting the year, Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce knew it was going to take some time for his team to reach their potential.
When the Fighting Illini won 13 of its first 15 games, most everyone thought that Illinois had a limitless potential for this season as the team moved into the Associated Press Top-25 Poll.
But an eight-game losing streak quickly turned things around, but that didn’t deter the Fighting Illini from continuing to strive for improvement.
Illinois enters tonight’s regular-season home finale against the No. 12-rated Michigan Wolverines with wins in four of its last six games, including a three-game winning streak.
“Illinois is playing as good as anyone in the league,’’ said Michigan coach John Beilein, whose Wolverines have clinched a share of the Big Ten title with a win over Minnesota on Saturday and the upset victory by Illinois over Michigan State 53-46.
“It’s a high priority for us to beat Illinois, the rest of the stuff will take care of itself,’’ he said referring to an outright Big Ten title, which Michigan could achieve with a win tonight.
The turnaround for Illinois has coincided with a change in its starting lineup as freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill have joined the lineup, while seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey have moved to the bench.
And while the changes have resulted in more wins, Groce believes it’s not quite that simple.
“I think our defense is starting to gain some ground because we have more guys that understand what they are supposed to be doing and their habits are better,’’ he said. “I think our young guys have really started to understand our defense better. That’s been the biggest difference. In pressure situations, your habits take over. It takes time for those habits to develop when you have nine newcomers.’’