Illinois working on a happy blending, not just three-pointers
After he had simmered down, Matt Painter gave his assessment of Illinois.
‘‘They’re playing good basketball right now,’’ said the Purdue coach, whose tirade got him tossed from the Boilermakers’ 79-59 loss at Illinois on Wednesday night. ‘‘They live by the three. If they rebound, they’re going to be OK. But if they don’t, that’s where they struggle some.’’
It’s true that Illinois, which was outrebounded 45-35 in its 68-61 loss at Purdue on Jan. 2, is getting stouter on the boards. It outrebounded Purdue on 44-34 on Wednesday.
But it’s also true that Illinois, which will try to extend its three-game winning streak at Northwestern on Sunday, doesn’t rely on three-pointers nearly as much as it did at the start of the season.
‘‘I think that’s definitely less true now,’’ Illini coach John Groce said. ‘‘It helps when we make some, but I think we’ve had a great blend right now.’’
He was referring to an offense that’s getting runners from Joseph Bertrand, drives from Tracy Abrams and mid-range jumpers from Nnanna Egwu as well as treys from D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey.
But Illinois also has shown a great blend in other ways while reviving its season after a 2-7 start in Big Ten play.
Despite being outrebounded 39-26 at Minnesota last Sunday, the Illini combined a plus-six turnover advantage with a good three-point-shooting night (11-for-23) to prevail. In the last five games, Illinois has not made more turnovers than an opponent. It has a plus-4.4 turnover edge in those games.
If Illinois keeps its head on straight, its prospects for reaching 9-9 in the Big Ten — which would make a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament — are solid.
‘‘You have to balance it,’’ Groce said. ‘‘You don’t want to become dysfunctional with a loss or swallow the poison of success. You have to continue to stay humble, buy into the concept of improving every single day. We want to be an every-day team, not a game-day team.’’
That attitude has allowed Sam McLaurin, the senior transfer from Coastal Carolina, to become a defensive and rebounding stalwart. It has allowed Bertrand to pull down 12 boards, the most by an Illini this season, against Purdue, and use his athleticism to get to the basket. It has allowed Richardson, who’s averaging 18 points the last three games, to become an all-around anchor.
That attitude has allowed Illinois to keep moving forward even on the many nights when the enigmatic Paul struggles.
In other words, it’s not just about three-point shooting anymore.