Monday, February 11, 2013

Raise Your Hand...

Indiana v Illinois
courtesy Getty Images

For those of you out there who remember old commercial jingles I give you this one that fits the Illini basketball team currently.

"Confidence!  Confidence!  Dry and secure!  Raise your hand, Raise your hand if your Sure!"

And the Illini are pretty darn sure of themselves right now.

This past week has potentially changed and saved the season the John Groce's first team at Illinois.  They have knocked off the #1 team in the country Indiana and now went on the road and beat #18 Minnesota in The Barn.  What a difference a week can make.

The Illini were sitting at 2-7 in the B1G Ten and were on the verge of looking NIT and not the NCAA's.  They were very eratic in their play and not hitting shots.  They were coming off yet another disappointing loss and showing against a very disciplined Wisconsin Bagders club in Champaign.

Then the hated Hoosiers came to town.  It looked like the downward spiral the Illini had been experiencing would continue until the shots started falling.

It seems simple to say but when the Illini make shots they have shown the tendency to play with and beat good competition.  Their mental makeup has been put into question and their ability to handle adversity.

The confidence to keep taking shots and believe you are going to make them even when you are in a horrible 0-22 slump from three-point-land like Tyler Griffey, pictured above on his teammates shoulders.  He had been nonexistent in the previous handful of games and when in the game had been hesitant to take shots.

Early in the year he was just catching and shooting.  Split second reaction.  Instinctive. 

Then the misses piled up and so his confidence faded.  But all it took was for one shot to fall against Indiana and maybe, just maybe, it is contagious.

Hey, Mr. D.J.  Raise your hands!
Tyler has caught the bug and it seems he has passed it along to D.J. Richardson.  The two of them have blossomed after that last few minutes against Indiana.  D.J. caught fire and a nuclear amount of confidence by making an 8 point stretch of shots to pull Illinois tied and then ultimately set the stage for Tyler's ultra easy game winner. 

This oozing of confidence can be seen on their faces.  They are playing like they did early in the year.  I have been critical of the talent on the roster due to the recruiting efforts before Groce landed on campus.  I still feel this way.  However, if your confidence is high then it makes your talents that much better.  Keep the mind out of the gutter, so to speak, and just play hoops.

The effort against Minnesota looked bleak early but they stayed the course.  Illinois couldn't buy a basket and they weathered that storm.  Groce has a tremendously positive attitude and shows love for the kids he coaches.  They are playing for each other and if you stay together the better off you will be when times are hard.

They had the confidence in their ability to stay within the system and fight through poor shooting to take a lead before halftime due to great defense and D.J. hitting a three point shot in the heart of Gopher fans.

Onions, baby!

They used that confidence and momentum into halftime and parlayed that into yet another upset and on the road no less with big shots from guys like Sam McLuarin and that dagger by Tracy Abrams.  Two guys that have struggled and yet felt confident in themselves to take threes and make them.     

This is still the same team that lost eight of eleven games but they finally started hitting some shots.  They need to continue this new found confidence and take care of business at home Wednesday against a Purdue team they have struggled to beat for years. 

No contest in Champaign should be as tough as the one they thwarted in dramatic fashion against Indiana.  If the Illini can continue upward on this roller coaster of a season they just might find themselves dancing in March. 

The depth of the B1G Ten this season should allow the Illini with the quality of their nonconference wins (at Gonzaga, Butler in Maui) and the quality wins they have accumulated in conference play (Indiana, Ohio State, at Minnesota) and it will probably take no less than 8 conference wins to secure a spot in the Big Dance. 

They have "winnable" games upcoming, if they stay confident and make shots, with the likes of Purdue, at Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, and potentially at Iowa.  That would put Illinois with the "losses" left on their schedule at Michigan, and at Ohio State.

Illinois could finish at the good end 9-9 and at the bad end of 8-10.  The power this conference has produced, like I mentioned before, gives a league team under .500 a good shot at securing a berth. 

The bottom line is the confidence picked up after winning games against Indiana and Minnesota can either gain momentum like a boulder rolling down a hill or can sink like the Titanic if they let it.   

It depends on how Coach Groce keeps this teams head held high and motivates them to stay humble and hungry. 

Raise your hand, Raise your hand if your Sure...

Right now the whole Illini team has raised their hand!

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