BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — 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.’’
The Illini defense has been outstanding in the past four league contests as Illinois has held four straight Big Ten teams under 50 points for the first time since the 1947 season.
“They are creating turnovers, and that’s a big thing,’’ said Beilein, as Illinois has forced 46 turnovers in its three-game win streak. “Michigan State is a good passing team, and they hard to guard. But, I think (Illinois) had something like 24 or 25 points off turnovers. That’s where they are creating a lot of their offense.
“They have two freshmen (Nunn and Hill) that are playing really well, they are getting their hands on the ball. And then (Rayvonte) Rice is getting like 3 steals a game during this stretch. Those are like Rajon Rondo’s numbers at Kentucky.’’
Rice, who is also the leading scorer for the Illini at 15.8 points per game, has had nine steals in the past two games.
And that Illinois defense, which is the second best in the Big Ten, will be put to a test tonight as Michigan has the third best offense in the conference, averaging 71.7 points per game. The Wolverines, who are led in scoring by guards Nik Stauskas (17.1) and Caris LeVert (13.4) along with forward Glenn Robinson III (13.0), have an impressive 6-2 record on the road in the Big Ten Conference play.
“Michigan is a great team,’’ Groce said. “They are very, very good on offense. They have multiple shoots and multiple weapons. Our defense has been good here lately, but it will certainly be tested with their personnel and their system.
“We are looking forward to that challenge.’’
With three straight victories, the thoughts of Illinois making a run to the NCAA Tournament have brighten. Realistically, the Illini will either need to win the Big Ten Tournament to get the league’s automatic berth or they might get an at-large by winning the final two regular-season games and winning at least two games in the conference tournament.
“We are improving,’’ Groce said. “You want to be that team that is improving at this time of the year. Our players deserve a lot of credit for their toughness and they have willed themselves through some adversity.’’
Tonight’s game will be the final home game for Bertrand and Ekey.
“You’ve to honor those two guys because of the way they have handled themselves,’’ Groce said. “Both of them have succeed academically and both of them were voted captains by their teammates.
“They have been great examples of what we want in our program.’’
Tip off time tonight is set for 6 p.m. and the game can be seen on ESPN, while WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1 will have radio coverage.
Nunn repeats as Big Ten freshman of the week
CHAMPAIGN — For the second week in a row, Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn has been named freshman of the week in the Big Ten Conference.
Nunn, who played at Chicago Simeon, averaged 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds a game in victories over Nebraska and Michigan State. He also chipped in 3.5 assists a game.
Game 30 Michigan Wolverines vs. Illinois Fighting Illini Site -- State Farm Center in Champaign When -- 6 p.m., today Records -- Michigan 21-7 overall, 13-3 in the Big Ten Conference; Illinois 17-12 overall, 6-10 in the Big Ten Rankings -- The Wolverines are rated No. 12 in the latest Associated Press Top-25 Poll; while the Illini are unrated. Television -- ESPN 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 104-72 over Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have won two in a row, including a 62-55 victory over the Illini on Jan. 23 in Columbus, Ohio. Last games -- The Wolverines defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers 66-56; while the Illini won at Michigan State 53-46. Up next -- Michigan concludes the regular season with a home contest against the Indiana Hoosiers and Illinois will conclude its regular season on the road at Iowa. Starting lineups -- Michigan: G Caris LeVert 6-6, so.; Nik Stauskas, 6-6, so.; G Derrick Walton Jr., 6-1, fr.; F Jordan Morgan, 6-8, sr.; F Glenn Robinson Jr., 6-6, so. G 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. Scoring leaders -- Michigan: Stauskas 17.1 points per game, LeVert 13.4, Robinson 13.0; Illinois: Rice 15.8, Abrams 10.9, Joseph Bertrand 9.2. Rebounding leaders -- Michigan: LeVert 4.5 rebounds per game, Morgan 4.5, Robinson 4.4, Jon Horford 4.4; Illinois: Rice 6.0, Egwu 6.0, Jon Ekey 5.2, Bertrand 4.3. Assist leaders -- Michigan: Stauskas 3.5, LeVert 2.8, Walton 2.8, Albrecht 2.3; Illinois: Abrams 3.2, Jaylon Tate 2.0, Rice 1.6.