BY CHAD DARE
It was only natural that the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team struggled on Sunday against Gardner-Webb.
Illinois was coming off an impressive showing at the EA Sports Maui Invitational, winning the title with wins over Southern California, Chaminade and Butler, by an average 23.3 points per game.
So the Fighting Illini, who are ranked No. 22 in the latest Associated Press Poll, needed a last-second 3-pointer from senior Tyler Griffey to get a 63-62 victory.
That doesn’t matter any more, but what does matter is tonight’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
“We have no excuses,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. “When they put a game on our schedule, whatever time the ball tips — we have to be ready to play. We have no excuses. That’s not how we operate.
“We have to play better. Our guys know that. I’ve got a smart group. They know that. I’ve always had the saying, you can’t fool the players, they know.’’
And that’s why Groce used Monday to get his team “mentally and physically refreshed” to face a Georgia Tech squad that is 4-1.
“It’s the next game,’’ Groce said. “If the way we played (against Gardner-Webb) in some areas of execution and some toughness areas — if our team doesn’t respond to that on (tonight), I will be concerned.
“We have to play better. We will let the results take care of themselves. I’m a big believer in that.’’
And so far, the results have been all positive for Groce and the Illini, who have won seven straight. And the first-year coach isn’t overly concerned that his younger players like sophomore guard Tracy Abrams and sophomore center Nnanna Egwu seemingly struggled on Sunday.
“Our younger guys weren’t very good, but I fully expect them to be better moving forward,’’ Groce said. “(Abrams) has been such a big part of what we’ve been doing to this point. I’d be shocked if he is not better on Wednesday night. He is a really competitive kid.’’
Illinois has won three straight in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge with wins over Clemson (2009), North Carolina (2010) and Maryland (2011), while Georgia Tech has lost four straight including losses to Northwestern in the past two challenges.
The Yellow Jackets are under the direction of Brian Gregory, the former Dayton coach, who beat Illinois 77-71 in the 2010 National Invitation Tournament.
And this Georgia Tech squad will definitely challenge the toughness of Illinois. The Yellow Jackets have four players averaging five or more rebounds a game.
“They are going to be physical, they’re going to throw the ball inside and they are going to rebound the heck out of the ball,” Groce said. “We’re going to have to do a better job of blocking out because they are terrific on the glass.”
Tonight’s game will tip off at 8 p.m. It can be seen on ESPN2 or heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.