What a roller coaster ride it's been this season for first-year coach John Groce's Illinois basketball team. Illinois jumped out of the gate hot, winning its first dozen games and jumping to number 10 in the national polls. The pre-conference record included wins over nationally ranked teams like Butler and Gonzaga.
The Big 10 schedule brought the Illini down to earth. After an early upset of Ohio State at Assembly Hall, Illinois lost six of seven conference games to fall to 2-7 in Big 10 play. The Illini are a "donut" team that really doesn't have a decent big man or inside presence. So, if the Illini aren't guarding opponents well and aren't hitting from the outside, the tough Big 10 teams cruise to wins over the Orange and Blue.
Last night, however, the Illini rediscovered their early season magic. After trailing by 11 points at the half to top ranked Indiana and by 10 points with 4:21 to play, Peoria native D.J. Richardson ignited the comeback. D.J. hit two straight 3 pointers, then hit another jumper. His 8 straight points tied the game, 70-70, with 1:17 remaining. Then, D.J. stole the ball from Indiana stud Victor Oladipo. Eventually, the ball went out of bounds and Illinois had nine tenths of a second to try a last play. With no timeouts left, Illinois star Brandon Paul waited for Tyler Griffey to get wide open in the lane. Griffey tossed in the lay up before time expired and Illinois had the win, 74-72.
Richardson finished with a game high 23 points. The Illini senior is a likeable guy. I got to know him a bit during his high school years (Peoria High) while working out in the evening at Landmark Gym, before he finished his prep career at a Las Vegas prep school. He's well-spoken and a good player, though greatness has eluded him at Illinois. It was great to see the local hero shine on national TV and on GLO radio last night.
As for Illinois, the Illini are still just 3-7 in Big 10 play. But they've knocked off four nationally ranked teams this season, and that includes three wins over top 10 teams. They still have a shot at getting into the NCAA tournament. But they need to start beating some middle of the pack teams. Illinois will get a shot at such a team when it plays at Minnesota Sunday (5 p.m. on 95.5, GLO). The Illini will look to avenge a 17-point home loss to the Gophers.