CHICAGO – Illinois senior D.J. Richardson said he won’t be picky.
A season ago, the Illini’s year ended with a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament, the coach’s firing and an absence from the NCAA tournament. So he’s not worried about what seed the Illini receive Sunday so long as he hears the Illini’s name called.
“It was disappointing,” Richardson said. “That’s why it’s good to play 4 years of college. Now that we have an opportunity to play there it should be fun.”
An 80-64 Big Ten quarterfinal loss Friday to top-seeded Indiana, a potential No. 1 overall seed for the tournament, won’t do much to undo what the Illini (22-12) have accomplished this season.
Illinois’ resume has enough bullet points that it does not have to worry about sitting home this season.
The Illini are projected as an eighth NCAA seed but missed a chance to raise that number with an upset in the quarterfinals.
ESPN predicted the Illini will start the tournament in the East Region against No. 9 Oregon in Philadelphia, while CBS has slotted them into the South Region against No. 9 North Carolina State in Lexington.
Coach John Groce could make a sales pitch to the tournament selection committee if needed.
“I told the guys when we were talking, we won seven of our last 11 games,” he said. “Losses being at Michigan, at Iowa and at Ohio State. And [Friday] to Indiana, which is really good. We have six top-25 RPI wins. The only two programs [with more] are Duke with seven and Indiana with eight. We played pretty good basketball.”
But the Illini can’t afford to ease into NCAA tournament games as they have lately.
They shot only 25.9 percent in the first half at the United Center, falling behind by 17 points. The Illini shed their offensive shackles in the second half, but the flawless-looking Hoosiers just accelerated.
Indiana (27-5) shot 65.2 percent after halftime, propelled by a game-high 24 points from Cody Zeller.
The Illini closed to within eight points late in the second half, just as they had in Champaign when they rallied in the regular season for a last-second victory against the then-No. 1 Hoosiers.
This time, Illinois lost steam before it could muster a dramatic finish.
Brandon Paul, who scored 25 points in the first-round victory over Minnesota, shot just 2 of 13 and accumulated 16 points largely because he was 11 of 12 from the line.
“We just weren’t able to stop them enough down the stretch,” Groce said. “Our offense was good enough in the second half. Our defense wasn’t.”
The Illini hope to be good enough in both parts of the game once NCAA Tournament play begins.
“Once we put two halves together, we’re going to be a force to reckon with,” Paul said. “We’re going to continue to look forward to Sunday because I feel like we have a lot of basketball left.”
Star of the game: Cody Zeller, Indiana, 24 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks
Bertrand watch: 10 points on 5-for-9 FGs, 0-for-1 FTs, 1 rebound, 1 block in 20 minutes
Up next: NCAA Tournament, Illinois vs. TBD