CHAMPAIGN – Among the things John Groce has preached to his Illinois team is the need to keep their emotions under control. Never get too high with a win or too low with a loss.
The home loss to No. 8 Minnesota this week could prove to be a test of just how closely the 12th-ranked Illini have listened.
The 84-67 loss followed a 74-55 blowout win over then-No. 8 Ohio State, a split almost any team would take.
But the loss also left Illinois (14-3 overall) at 1-2 in the Big Ten, losers of three of its last five. Maybe worse, Illinois couldn’t pin the loss to Minnesota on a lack of effort or toughness.
“Ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw Wednesday night,” Groce said. “They were really good.”
Now the Illini are looking ahead to a game Saturday at Wisconsin (11-4, 2-0), not the first team you’d pick to bounce back against.
Illinois has lost 10 of its last 14 against the Badgers, who stubbornly stick to just the kind of low-scoring, methodical game that the Illini – averaging a solid 75.2 points a game – have managed to avoid this season.
Wisconsin is averaging 70.6 a game, but that figure is dropping. It scored 47 on Nebraska and 60 on Penn State in their last two games, respectively, both wins.
“They’re very, I don’t want to say very deliberate, but very calculating,” Groce said. “They’re determined to get what they want to get ... It’s hard to speed them up,” he added.
Sophomore center Nnanna Egwu, who has played twice against Bo Ryan’s Badgers, sounded a little frustrated just describing Wisconsin’s slowdown game.
“They do a good job getting to you, making you prolong your offense,” Egwu said. “And on the offensive end, they take their time. They make you guard for [almost] 35 seconds and then they shoot with 2 seconds left – and then they get the offensive rebound and make you guard for another 35 seconds.”
Egwu, in his first year as a starter, will see a lot of Badgers center Jared Berggren, the team’s leading scorer at 13.3 points a game. He also grabs six rebounds per game. The 6-10, 235-pound post is in his fifth season in Madison, and has started every game since the opener last season, 51 in a row.
Egwu, an inch taller than Berggren, isn’t nearly as polished, but he’s started to come into his own the past few weeks. He’s averaging 8.2 points and seven rebounds a game over the last five, and has given Illinois a smart, physical presence inside on defense.
He quietly had one of the better nights of any Illinois player in the loss to Minnesota, pulling down nine rebounds while scoring eight points.
A loss Saturday would push the Illini toward the back of the Big Ten pack. The next two games, against Northwestern and Nebraska, would give them a chance to claw back. But there’s no question they’d be well behind the top of the conference that could include a pair of 4-0 teams in Michigan and Minnesota by the end of the weekend.
That, Groce said, is something Illinois can’t worry about.
“In terms of getting away from you and all that, I can’t control that,” he said.