BY CHAD DARE
Illinois first-year coach John Groce found the right buttons to push before Saturday’s game with Ohio State.
His Fighting Illini came out and played the type of game necessary to be successful in the Big Ten as Illinois rolled past Ohio State 74-55.
But, this is the Big Ten and that was just one of 18 games in a difficult conference season.
“If I could bottle up that toughness that we had (against Ohio State) and play with it for the next (16) games, obviously, I do that,’’ said Groce on Saturday. “Each game is so different.
“We are not going to define our season by one game — win or lose.’’
And for the second time in as many games, Illinois will welcome a top-10 team to the Assembly Hall.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers, rated No. 8 in the latest AP poll, are rolling with a 10-game win streak and a 14-1 record with their only setback being an 89-71 loss to No. 1 Duke in the Battle for Atlantis Tournament.
“Now, we have to handle success appropriately,’’ Groce said. “We need to have the same toughness and togetherness that we had on Saturday.
“We have to have that again against a very physical, athletic, deep and the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country.’’
Minnesota, which has beaten Michigan State and Northwestern at home to start the Big Ten season, is averaging 41.3 rebounds per game and the Gophers are outrebounding their opponents by 11.1 a game.
“They are lights out on the glass,’’ Groce said. “They are getting 48 percent back on the offensive glass.’’
Sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe leads Minnesota with 7.7 rebounds per game, while forward Rodney Williams averages six boards per game to go along with 12.9 points.
While those two provide the inside strength, the leading scorer for the Gophers is point guard Andrew Hollins at 13.1 points per game, including a career-high 41 in a win over Memphis earlier this season.
“Hollins is a great point guard,’’ said Groce of the 6-foot-1 sophomore. “He can score. He makes guys better. He defends. He’s athletic. He has good size. He is really talented.
“It starts with him on the offensive end — he is the one guy that can make a play for himself or for others without running offense.’’
And this is the first really good point guard that Illinois has faced this year.
Groce pointed out that the Illini just saw Ohio State’s Aaron Craft along with games against Kevin Pangos from Gonzaga and Phil Pressey from Missouri.
“We have played against a lot of really good point guards,’’ Groce said.
And Illinois will counter with the duo of sophomore Tracy Abrams and senior Brandon Paul.
In the win over Ohio State, Abrams had seven points, four assists and two steals in helping Illinois open a 12-point halftime lead. Abrams finished with 13 points, five assists and three steals.
“Tracy has been playing well,’’ said Paul, who had a team-high 19 points on Saturday. “When he comes out and brings that type of energy, I think it picks other guys up.
“When he can do that, it takes some pressure of other guys.’’
And the Illini will need that type of a game from Abrams again tonight and it wouldn’t hurt if the other sophomore starter, Nnanna Egwu, can have another big game for Illinois.
Egwu scored a career-high 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and the 6-foot-11 center also pulled down eight rebounds.
“He was good at both ends,’’ said Groce on Saturday. “He does some things on the defensive end that I don’t think people give him credit for.
“He made shots and helped us on the glass. He continues to get better.’’
And his performance didn’t surprise the first-year coach.
“I’ve seen him do in practice over and over again,’’ Groce said. “If there is ever a kid that deserves to get better, it’s him.
“He works his tail off. He cares about Illinois, and he cares about winning.’’
Not only will the Illini starters need to play well, but the Gophers can go 11 deep and that will be another challenge for Illinois.
“They are athletic and they keep coming at you,’’ Groce said. “They force a lot of turnovers and they want to get out in transition.
“They also average 26 free-throw attempts a game, making between 18 and 19. Once again, lending itself to how physical they are.’’
Illinois will need to match that style of play and the Illini proved on Saturday that they don’t necessary have to hit a bunch of 3-pointers to beat a top-10 team as they were just 8-of-27 behind the arc against the Buckeyes.
“If we defend and rebound, we have a chance — regardless of how well we shoot the ball,’’ Groce said.
Tonight’s game against the Gophers can be seen on the Big Ten Network and heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.