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Inconsistent Illini looking to make another late-season surge

If Aaron Cosby returns to the lineup, Illinois hopes to make a season comeback similar to last year's.
(Nam Y. Huh, AP)
Chicago Tribune

Illinois had lost eight straight games last season before something clicked.

Starting with a victory against Penn State, the Illini won six of their final 10 games through the Big Ten tournament to salvage the season with a two-game NIT run.

This season’s Illini (13-8, 3-5 Big Ten) have only 10 games left in the regular season, starting Saturday against Penn State in Champaign. They need another out-of-nowhere turnaround.

“Last year at this time, we started to surge a little bit,” coach John Groce said. “When I watch that film from (the end of) last year, it was ridiculous. It was consistently ridiculous. We have to get where we have that on a more consistent basis.”

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Consistency has not been easy for the Illini to find. They have not won consecutive games since December, before the Big Ten season began. For the last seven games, they have alternated a win with a loss.

But Groce said he’s more concerned with inconsistent effort than the pattern of wins and losses.

“We have to be more competitively tough consistently, and we have not done that yet,” Groce said. “I’m not even talking about wins and losses. As I’m watching it, I think we can give more.”

He described the team’s competitiveness on a nightly basis as “disappointing.”

“The next step for us is learning how to compete consistently, especially with our toughness on the defensive end and our rebounding,” he added. “Ultimately your ability to concentrate and your willingness to be physically and mentally tough is a choice.”

It’s a fact Illinois hasn’t been left with many options. Groce said this is the first time in his coaching career he has had to switch “midstream” this late in the season because of injuries.

The Illini could get guards Rayvonte Rice (hand) and Aaron Cosby (eye) back from injuries against the Nittany Lions (14-7, 2-6). Illinois hasn’t played a game since a loss at Minnesota a week ago, giving players time to heal and the team a chance to refresh.

“It’s allowed us to do a lot of things,” Groce said. “We hit the reset button. It’s given us a chance to take a deep breath. … It’s come at a good time for us.”

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sryan@tribpub.com

Twitter @sryantribune


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