Perhaps things are looking up for Illinois basketball. As this season went through the ringer, becoming more miserable by the game, all fans could do was look for the bottom. It didn’t come when Mike Thorne tore his meniscus; it didn’t come in a 103-69 loss to Indiana; it didn’t come when Leron Black was arrested; and it didn’t even come in two brutal losses after the arrest at Wisconsin and against Indiana.
No, it seems the bottom was scraped Sunday night, around 8 pm, when Illinois was losing by 8 to a Minnesota team that had won just 2 conference games all season and was dealing with suspensions to 3 of its top 6 players. Maybe, hopefully, that was the nadir Illinois finally had to hit. It was then that word came through that 2017 4-star point guard and Illini legacy Da’Monte Williams was committing to the Illini. Then, new athletic director Josh Whitman took the floor at State Farm Center to address the populace for the first time, and using his new, likely trademarked, slogan, he told fans “We will win.” Lo and behold, the Illini did just that.
The Illini came out of the locker room with a vigor unseen since the Purdue game, outscoring the Gophers 52-31 in the second half to pick up a seemingly easy 84-71 victory. Every aspect of the game was changed for Illinois (13-16, 5-11) after the interval. Defensively the team was aggressive, nabbing 9 steals in the second half (13 overall) and blocking 4 shots (6 overall). The keyed up defense led to fast breaks and a decreased reliance on the long shot, helping the Illini to 17/23 (73.9%) shooting in the final 20 minutes.
By John Groce’s account, no fire and brimstone from him ignited the team. Instead, he got exactly what he wanted from his upperclassmen: Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn gave the rallying cry that inspired the team to victory. After pleading in public for his older guys to own the team, the win and their leadership surely felt good for Groce.
“I learned a lot today about our team. I loved their response,” the coach said.
Hill and Nunn didn’t just talk, however: they led by example. In the second half, Hill never sat down, playing all 20 minutes and scoring 17 (he finished with 22), dishing 3 assists, stealing the ball 3 times, and getting a block in. Likewise, Nunn turned defense into offense with a pair of steals, a couple assists, and 16 points after the break (25 for the game). Their increased workload took pressure off freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who had been carrying the load in the first half, in which he scored 12 of his 18 points.
Now, we’ve been here before, thinking Illinois has finally bottomed out, only to be proven wrong. Something feels different this time, though. Maybe it’s because Sunday was the last home game of the year, meaning the next time most fans see Illinois in person it will be a new season, with new faces and, God-willing, less injuries. Whatever it is, it’s hard not to see that performance, the final one at State Farm Center for this season, as an apology from the team, their way of asking us to return next year with open minds. Picking up a top-50 recruit, from in state, whose father is an Illini legend, doesn’t hurt either.
Things will happen between now and the beginning of the 2016-17 season, including losses. Not many people are holding their breath for a win at Maryland this Thursday, for example. But even if (or when) more losses come, maybe that doesn’t mean Illinois is still trending downward. At the very least, thinking that way and looking ahead with some optimism will make fans a little less miserable.