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Illinois can’t let this Buffalo roam in NCAA Tournament

Sam McLaurAustHollins

Sam McLaurin, Austin Hollins

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Nobody is having a better time than Sam McLaurin.

A fifth-year transfer from tiny Coastal Carolina, the 6-8 graduate student has made the most of his opportunity at Illinois. He has gone from a big question mark to a Big Ten presence.

And he’s enjoying the ride.

“I feel like I’ve had the best one year that anyone in this conference has ever had,” McLaurin gushed after forcing the turnover that set up Brandon Paul’s game-winning shot against Minnesota last Thursday.

Now comes the next challenge. When the Illini face Colorado in the NCAA tournament Friday in Austin, Texas, McLaurin will need to help neutralize Andre Roberson. An accomplished shot blocker, the 6-7 junior forward was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and a first-team all-conference selection. He averages 10.9 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

If the Illini let that Buffalo roam, they’ll be home on the range before they know it. A native of San Antonio, 80 miles southwest of Austin, Roberson is intent on enjoying this homecoming by helping Colorado, which lost in the round of 32 a year ago, stick around longer.

The good news is that McLaurin and his main frontcourt mate, Nnanna Egwu, readily accept challenges. And though McLaurin is an NCAA tournament rookie, he’s a postseason graybeard.

“I’ve been to two NITs and a CIT,’’ he said. “In the NIT, you have a little selection show, but it’s on ESPNU, never on CBS like everybody else. It sucks. Nobody wants that.’’

It’s only natural that McLaurin wants to make his first NCAA foray last as long as possible.

“I’m looking forward to playing my best,’’ he said. “Now it’s win or go home.’’

If Roberson has a big day, fingers will be pointed. But if Roberson is kept in check, McLaurin and Egwu probably won’t attract much attention. The focus tends to be on the perimeter guys, and understandably so. When Illinois shines, Paul and D.J. Richardson are making shots, like the perfect jumper Paul knocked down to beat the Gophers.

But coach John Groce knows the Illini can’t do without their men in the middle.

Interior defense is not only essential to making opponents work for their scoring. Teams also need a little inside presence when they have the ball to compensate for the streaky nature of outside shooting.

That’s why, after the Illini were carved up by Indiana’s Cody Zeller on Saturday, Groce was asked how he felt about Illinois’ inside game as it heads into the tournament.

“I’d like to get more,’’ he said. “It’s an unbelievable luxury to have, when you have that type of paint attack and you have guys that demand attention. It really opens up some things. But at the end of the day, some guys have knacks for scoring.’’

Egwu, an agile 6-11 sophomore, is showing promise.

“And then, to be honest with you,’’ Groce said, “we have got to add some things with our program moving forward through recruiting.’’

For now, though, don’t sell McLaurin short. No matter what the resume says, this isn’t his first rodeo.

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