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Groce wants a follow-up hit after Illinois snapped skid

NCAA BASKETBALL

NCAA BASKETBALL

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Updated: February 11, 2014 10:24PM



Frankly, we couldn’t tell you where Men Without Hats, Dexys Midnight Runners and Tommy Tutone stand on Illinois basketball, but we do know this: Illini coach John Groce loves him some 1980s pop music.

We know it because Groce said as much — come to think of it, ‘‘admitted’’ is a better word — on Tuesday, two days after his team ended an eight-game losing streak with a victory at Penn State.

Groce wasn’t copping to this particular guilty pleasure as an act of public self-shaming. He actually had a point, and a pretty good one at that, relating to the 14-10 Illini and their ongoing efforts to salvage their season.

‘‘There were a lot of one-hit wonders in the ’80s,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.’’

A single moment of triumph — after more than a month without one — isn’t going lift the Illini out of the Big Ten cellar, let alone enable them to make a decent case for a postseason tournament berth. Can this team, now 3-8 in league play, build on its success?

It didn’t seem very likely a year ago after the Illini were beaten in seven of their first nine Big Ten games, but Groce coaxed a five-game February winning streak out of a team that turned its season around.

It might seem silly to call Wednesday night’s game at Nebraska a must-win, but we’ll go ahead and do it anyway. And the subplot will be Game  2 in the starting lineup for true freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, who replaced seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey at Penn State and performed extraordinarily well, combining for 30 points and rising to the level that Groce demands of all players defensively.

If the Illini are going to turn their season around, Nunn and Hill will have to show real staying power.

‘‘I don’t want those guys being a one-hit wonder,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I want to see if they can do it consistently. . . . They’ve got the platform to do it. At this point, it’s February and they’ve got the knowledge, or certainly more knowledge than they had when we first got together in June.’’

In fact, Groce would be pleased to expand the roles of all five Illini freshmen, each of whom played double-digit minutes against the Nittany Lions — a first for this team since conference play began.

‘‘But I don’t make that decision,’’ Groce said. ‘‘The players do with how well they play, how well they prepare.’’

If Nunn and Hill do their parts to remain in the starting lineup, Bertrand and Ekey could give the Illini quite a one-two offensive punch off the bench. Bertrand — though he finished with zero points in 13 minutes at Penn State — has scored in double figures in 15 games this season. Ekey leads the team with 44 three-point baskets and scored nine points in 21 minutes against the Nittany Lions.

‘‘Any way to help the team,’’ Ekey said. ‘‘I wasn’t putting my head down or anything. I just want to win.’’

And more than once, mind you.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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