There was a letdown after beating #1 Indiana when Illinois took the floor at Minnesota, but the Illini hung around long enough to right the ship and come back from a 12 point deficit and get a 57-63 win at the Barn. Tyler Griffey, aka Lazarus, scored 16 points, hitting four 3 pointers, while DJ Richardson added 13 and Brandon Paul 10 for Illinois.
After a slow start in which Illinois didn't make a basket for over 9 minutes, Minnesota took a 26-14 lead before the Illini showed up. DJ Richardson keyed a 20-4 run that saw Illinois go up 34-30 early in the second half on a Griffey 3.
It was a see saw affair after that, but the Illini clinched when Tracy Abrams drained a 3 in the final seconds with the shot clock running down to ice it.
Here's a look back.
1. Defense becoming the staple - Illinois again had a solid defensive game plan, in which they post trapped Mbakwe in the 2nd half and made him kick it out against the double team. It was effective, leading to some turnovers and rushed shots. It meant the opposite wing had to rotate down on the opposite big man, but they actually executed and didn't give up the easy baskets. Minnesota did get 15 offensive rebounds, but only 10 second chance points and forced 13 turnovers.
2. Ball movement, player movement - When the Illini were clicking at the end of the first half and for a stretch during the second half, they had some great ball movement and guys were cutting and screening. When Illinois can get penetration it opens up driving lanes and passing lanes. It isn't coincidence that after Richardson and Griffey hit some 3's, Paul was able to get to the rim on the next possession. Abrams repeatedly got into the lane, and although he forced a few shots, he also dished out 6 assists with 0 turnovers.
3. The Lazarus Effect - Tyler Griffey isn't dead, after all. The Illini shot 11-23 from behind the arc, looking like the 'threemendous' team from earlier in the season. Griffey was 4-7, after going 8 full games between 3 pointers during the Big Ten season. DJ Richardson continues to blister the nets and is the one player actually shooting better in Big Ten play. However, Griffey's re-emergence is the key for the Illinois offense.
Better with Tracy - Although he shot just 2-9, Tracy Abrams hit one huge shot and played a solid floor game. Abrams had 6 assists, 6 rebounds and more importantly 0 turnovers for the Illini. In each half, with Abrams on the bench, Illinois got off to slow starts and made runs upon his insertion into the game. He did force some things, but overall a solid floor game from Abrams.
Rebounding issues - Minnesota really killed Illinois on the glass, and they are the #1 offensive rebounding team in the country, but it didn't hurt Illinois too badly. Illinois actually got 11 second chance points to just 10 for Minnesota despite the 15 Gopher offensive boards. That's a very important number. The large number of second possessions slowed the pace of the game greatly, as Minnesota seemed to reset their offense repeatedly upon corralling offensive rebounds.
*The game was played at 54 possessions, the slowest game of the season for Illinois. In turn, it was the lowest scoring game of the year for the two teams combined. Some of the slow pace was due to the inexplicably bad Illinois offensive movement early on, and some due to the number of extra possessions on the offensive end for the Gophers. But this was a grind it out Big Ten affair.
*The last time these two teams met in Champaign, Minnesota outscored Illinois 14 to 0 on fast break points. This time, Illinois won that battle 5 to 0 (although I would contend Minnesota had 2.) Either way, still a huge improvement. The transition defense has really improved as the season has gone on, and Illinois is throwing fewer 'pick 2's'. They won the Indiana game 8-0 on fast break points. Perhaps a trend is starting.
*Illinois shot 7-26 on 2 pointers, 11-23 on 3's. Some of that is Minnesota choosing to clog the lane, as Illinois had just 10 points in the paint, but some of it is just poor finishing and attempts at acrobatic degree of difficulty shots from Abrams, Bertrand and Paul.
*The officials really let them play, as the teams combined to shoot 7 free throws in the second half. That contributes to the offensive rebounds, as blocking out is just a suggestion and over the back doesn't exist. They were pretty consistent, however. That turned out to help Illinois late, as Minnesota had to foul 5 times in the final seconds to even get Illinois into the bonus, and it never happened.
*John Groce had a foul to give, and he used it. It ran some time off of the clock and allowed the defense to reset. Both Wisconsin and Michigan failed to follow this basic principle on Saturday, and it came back to bite them. Give Groce credit for always being focused on the game.
*Joe Coleman scored 29 against Illinois last time, and had 3 on Sunday. Talk about a turnaround. His reversion to the mean was expected, however.
*People often bemoan the Illinois ball handling and passing, but if you had to watch Minnesota all year you may appreciate the Illinois point guards. They are very turnover prone as a team.
*Nnanna Egwu continues to struggle a bit. After a solid stretch a couple of weeks ago, he has reverted back to some bad early season habits. That's pretty common for inexperienced bigs, but Illinois needs more from him down the stretch.
*Sam McLaurin is now the leading 3 point shooter for Illinois, although I wouldn't expect him to take many more after the John Groce reaction. McLaurin was solid, basically he is what he is. One thing he gives you is consistency, as he always brings the effort and the intangibles, but he lacks the overall talent of the top level big men in the league.
*Speaking of shooting slumps, Joe Bertrand is now 2-16 from 3 in Big Ten play. He made his first two from deep against Purdue on January 2nd, and is 0-14 since then. Before that streak, he was shooting 50% from behind the arc.
*Illinois really isn't a bubble team anymore. They could get back on the bubble with some losses, but they are a solid NCAA tourney team and will receive some top 25 votes this week. They can really make everything easy on themselves by winning the next 3 games, games in which they will be favored. In fact, they will be favored in 4 of their next 5. Win those and they are looking good.
*You'd love to see Illinois get to the top 6 in the league, and draw either Penn State or Nebraska in the Thursday Big Ten tournament game, and also avoid Michigan or Indiana in the quarterfinals. 6 seed plays the 11 seed and 5 plays 12. Top 4 is unlikely, so no actual bye, but getting a top 6 seed is like a bye. A 7 or 8 seed probably gets them Northwestern or Purdue most likely.