BY CHAD DARE
It’s hard not to see the big smile on the face of Illinois senior Tyler Griffey when he talks about the last meeting between the Fighting Illini and the Indiana Hoosiers.
Griffey’s game-winning layup with 00.9 seconds left gave Illinois a 74-72 victory over Indiana, who was rated No. 1 in the country, and it set off a wild celebration on the floor of the Assembly Hall.
And while that game was 36 days ago, Griffey and the rest of the Fighting Illini know that the Hoosiers will have revenge on their minds.
“They are a team that is playing really, really well,” Griffey said. “They have gotten better as the season progressed, so after beating them the first time, we know they will be ready and we expect it.”
The Hoosiers have won six of eight since the loss to the Illini and Indiana earned its first outright Big Ten Conference Championship since 1993.
“I’m ready to keep playing in this tournament,” said Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson, who is 10-of-38 from the field in the past three games. “I’m blessed to play against these type of teams. There’s a lot of good teams in the Big Ten. We’re going to treat Indiana like we treat the rest of the teams in the Big Ten, take it one game at a time.
“We’ll have scouting tonight and get a lot of fluids in us and get prepared for tomorrow.”
A big focus of the Illinois scouting report will be Indiana sophomore forward Cody Zeller, who is averaging 21.3 points and 8 rebounds in the past three games for the Hoosiers.
“He’s a great player,” Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu said. “The one thing about Zeller is that he is such a great player but he also plays hard. So does (Victor) Oladipo.
“They are the two hardest playing players on their team. So you have to match intensity level and compete with them.”
Oladipo, the Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year, averages 13.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Also averaging double digits for the Hoosiers is forward Christian Watford (12.4) and guard Jordan Hulls (10.5).
Indiana has never won a Big Ten Tournament championship, while Illinois has won two titles in Chicago and the Illini are 16-5 all-time in tournament games at the United Center, but Illinois coach John Groce admits he need to sit down with assistant coach Dustin Ford to develop the game plan.
“I’ll know more when I get with Dustin,” Groce said. “He can inform me what they have done between when we played them last and now.
“Our total focus was on today’s game (Illinois beat Minnesota 51-49). We have not tried to advance our thought any further than that.”
Thursday’s victory for Illinois snapped a string of three straight losses in the conference tournament, including back-to-back years where the Illini, who started Big Ten play at 2-7, lost in their first game at the tourney.
“I’m happy for those guys. They have been through an awful lot. And I’m really proud of their resilience. I said that as soon as season No. 2 ended. That they’re aware that some people had written them off. I think that put a chip on their shoulder. It does, if you’re a competitor,” Groce said. “And they responded very well in the second half of Big Ten play.
“And today I think that their mindset of being poised and the way they talked to one another in timeouts, our body language was really good. Those intangible things mean as much as anything in terms of being able to get the outcome we got today. Now you’re able to make some of those plays because your mind is right.”
Illinois will try to carry the momentum over into today’s quarterfinal contest that is scheduled to tip off at 11 a.m. The game can be seen on ESPN, while it can be heard on WDAN-AM 1490 or WDNL-FM 102.1.