I don’t care that Nebraska is at the bottom of the conference, a conference road win for Illinois is a conference road win. And, it was a convincing win at that, as Illinois went into Lincoln with something to prove on Tuesday and came out successful, winning 71-51.
I have to come clean and admit that I did not watch this game live. We had tickets to “Book of Mormon” on Tuesday, which we purchased way before the basketball schedule was released. Since the show is sold out in Chicago, we had to tape the game and watch it at a later time. Since I’m incredibly superstitious, a small part of me worries that maybe I shouldn’t watch any more games live this season.
To say that the Illini have been having trouble in conference play would be an understatement. A home loss to Northwestern capped off a 3-game losing streak, two of which were at home. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, the Illini needed a win to get out of the slump. We all know that it’s going to take more than just Brandon Paul to make it to the Tourney this year, and it was wonderful to see D.J. Richardson finally contribute some real numbers at Nebraska.
Richardson had a career-high 30 points, and was 6-9 from behind the arc and 7-7 on FTs. Richardson has been strong on the defensive end, but he can obviously shoot the ball as well. He’s shown flashes of greatness since winning Freshman of the Year oh so long ago, but for the past two seasons he’s faded into the background. I’m happy with his performance, I just hope it will happen again.
Paul gave us a solid 14 points, as well as a steal, 3 rebounds and 3 assists. These numbers would be impressive for some, but I also know Paul can do more. No one else was in double digits, but Nnanna Egwu did have 10 rebounds and 8 points.
The win against Nebraska gave John Groce his 100th win in five seasons as a head coach. Also, maybe it will help the Illini turn the conference season around – maybe. Last year’s game at Nebraska was an ugly, embarrassing, tearful loss that pretty much marked the end of the season. This time, the chips fell much differently, and the win could give the Illini the confidence they need to push forward.
Unfortunately, things aren’t getting any easier moving forward. Nebraska may not be the worst in the league (that title goes to Penn State), but in the standings, Illinois is tied with Iowa for third to last place, barely ahead of the Cornhuskers and Nittany Lions.
Up next, the Illini will welcome Michigan at the Assembly Hall on Sunday afternoon. A win against the Wolverines would be HUGE, but it is in no way expected. I don’t even know if I would venture to say a win is possible, I just know that it would make a big difference in the season. Michigan has just 1 loss this season at Ohio State, and we did beat Ohio State at home, so perhaps it is possible. Perhaps.
Let’s be realistic here, Michigan is currently the No. 2/3 team in the country. The last time Illinois beat a team ranked 2 or higher was in 2004 against Wake Forest, a game which will remain in Illini history for all time. This is the fifth ranked team they’ll be facing this season, and the record is 2-2 (wins against 10 Gonzaga and 8 OSU). Michigan has a 3-game winning streak against Illinois, which I believe will spread to 4 on Sunday, and then 5 at the end of the season.
All I really care about is that we don’t look stupid. Wisconsin made us look like idiots, and then Northwestern did the same thing in Champaign. If Illinois can stay in the game and not let things get out of hand, then they’ll have a much better chance of winning. Paul, Egwu, Richardson and Abrams all need to be involved, and if Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand would like to reemerge that would be fantastic. Just imagine what could happen if everyone had a great game! Shots need to fall and rebounds need to be grabbed. I want to see hustle, energy and power. Otherwise, I might have to forgo more games and watch musicals instead.
The game will air on BTN at 5pm.