By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Just when it looked like all was lost for Illinois basketball, suddenly, it isn’t at all.
Only nine days ago, Illini coach John Groce’s program was engulfed in both gloom (an 0-2 Big Ten record after a 77-61 setback at Ohio State) and doom (leading scorer Rayvonte Rice had been sidelined indefinitely after breaking his hand) as it prepared to face No. 11 Maryland down in Champaign.
But since then?
Well, you’ve really got to hand it to the Illini, because they didn’t just throw theirs up and surrender in the face of adversity. Instead, the Illini are living up to the “Fighting” in their nickname and have now given themselves a legitimate shot at actually making a run to the NCAA Tournament.
Getting there still won’t be easy — but it also isn’t impossible.
On Wednesday night, Illinois pulled out a gutsy 72-67 road win at Northwestern, giving the team victories in two of its last three games since losing Rice to injury. With a 12-6 record overall that includes 2-3 mark in the Big Ten despite playing four of their first five league games on the road, the Illini’s situation is now looking up.
Eight of the final 13 conference games will take place in the comfy confines of State Farm Center, where the Illini already throttled the talented Terrapins. Rice will also be back at some point before season’s end. And beginning with Sunday’s home game against Indiana, Illinois’ next five opponents currently have a combined record of just 7-15 in the Big Ten.
Four of those five games will be held in Champaign, while the only road tilt is at Minnesota, which currently is winless in conference at 0-5.
With Illinois repeatedly failing to close out second-half leads this season, questions have begun to swirl about whether Groce is up to the task of returning the Illini to basketball prominence. One friend even told me on Wednesday prior to the game in Evanston that if Illinois lost to Northwestern, “enough was enough” and that Groce should be on the hot seat.
I begged to differ, arguing that having now added Rice (17.2 points per game) to the unavailable-to-play list alongside the injured Tracy Abrams (10.7 ppg last season) and suspended Darius Paul (17.4 ppg this season at Lamar State Junior College), Illinois’ roster is greatly limited offensively. As a result, it’s difficult to fairly judge Groce’s coaching performance this season.
This is, of course, unless he cobbles together a resurgent squad that makes a Big Ten run.
So far, Malcolm Hill (career-high 28 points vs. Maryland), Kendrick Nunn (career-high 25 points vs. Northwestern) and even embattled transfer Aaron Cosby (19 points against Northwestern) have taken turns picking up Illinois’ scoring slack left by Rice’s absence.
Even without three of its top players, Illinois still has talent.
And with the wins over Maryland and Northwestern, it also now has a shot.