BY CHAD DARE
It doesn’t matter if it happened last month or last week.
Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce knows his Fighting Illini are going to have to play well in today’s Big Ten Tournament opener against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
“They know they have played good basketball, at times, and when they do — they play the right way — they can beat about anybody. And when they don’t, we can get beat by about anybody,’’ said Illinois coach John Groce, who led his 2010 and 2012 Ohio teams to Mid-American Conference Tournament titles. “That’s good, they have learned that.
“They have been locked in, with a little extra focus here in March.’’
So the fact that the Illini (21-11 overall, 8-10 in the Big Ten) lost three of their final four regular-season games shouldn’t matter.
Nor should the fact that Illinois won at Minnesota, 57-53, on Feb. 10 or that the Golden Gophers won 85-67 at the Assembly Hall on Jan. 9.
“If they think a win a month ago or a loss four of five days ago is going to have anything to do with Thursday’s game at 11 a.m., then we are not very mentally tough,’’ Groce said. “We don’t understand what this is about and we lack toughness. That’s a problem in March.
“We can’t control any of that, it’s gone.’’
But what Illinois does control is its postseason fate.
While most prognosticators have the Illini firmly in the NCAA Tournament field, a good showing this weekend wouldn’t hurt.
“Our ultimate goal is the NCAA Tournament, but we’re not content with just that,’’ Tyler Griffey said. “This tournament is loaded. It’s going to be a rough four days.
“Our total mindset is going up there to win the thing.’’
In order to do that, Illinois will need to beat a 20-win team in Minnesota, upset the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the quarterfinals, then more than likely beat a team in the semifinals that they lost to twice this season (Michigan or Wisconsin) and after all of that, beat at top-10 rated team in either Ohio State or Michigan State.
That’s a pretty daunting task for any team in college basketball.
“We need some guys to step up and make a few more plays,’’ Groce said. “They can. They’ve done that and I’m confident they have the capability to do it.’’
And earlier this season, Illinois captured the EA Sports Maui Invitational, beating USC, Chaminade and Butler in a span of three days.
“The one thing we did in Maui is that we didn’t worry about the opponents ahead of our first one,’’ he said. “That’s what we have to do right now. Our focus has to be on Minnesota. We can’t worry about how many games we have to play or who we have to play next.
“This game is going to be about mental toughness and physical toughness.’’
And the latter might be the most important considering that the Golden Gophers feature a very imposing front court of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.
Those two are combining to average 20.5 points per game and 13.9 rebounds a game, but Williams did not play when Illinois beat Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“Rodney is really talented player, elite-level athlete,’’ Groce said. “He certainly changes their team. We have to keep him off the glass and we can’t let him make highlight plays in transition.’’
The Golden Gophers also feature a backcourt of Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman, those three are combining for 33.2 points a game.
But, it was Coleman, who scored a career-high 29 in Minnesota’s win at the Assembly Hall and he managed just 3 points in the loss at home.
“We are pretty used to their personnel,’’ Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson said. “The game plan should be pretty much same for them as it has been this year, considering its going be our third time playing them.
“Rebounding is something that Minnesota does a good job with and the first time, they did a good job of transition. We have to be prepared for that.’’
A big key to the success of the Illini this weekend will be Brandon Paul.
While, the senior guard is shooting just 37.2 percent (32-of-86) from the field and just 16-of-51 behind the 3-point arc, Groce said the former standout from Gurnee Warren has played his best basketball.
“Some people will look at scoring, percentages and all of those things,’’ Groce said. “I’m looking at it more holistically. I’m looking at body language, attitude, leadership, defense, rebounding, sharing the ball. He has done a lot of those things really well.
“Obviously, we need him to plays for us and I’m confident that he can.’’
And Paul is one of seven Illinois players from the Chicagoland region and will be basically playing at home this weekend in the United Center.
Sophomore guard Tracy Abrams and sophomore center Nnanna Egwu are also from the Windy City and the Illini have enjoyed their previous trips to the United Center for the Big Ten Tournament.
Illinois won the 2003 and 2005 Big Ten Tournament titles in Chicago and the Illini are 15-5 all-time in Big Ten Tournament games at the United Center, which is sold out this weekend with the exception of a few standing-room only tickets.
“I’ve heard it’s a hard ticket to get,’’ said Groce with a smile.
Today’s opening-round game will be televised by the Big Ten Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 or WDNL-FM 102.1.