A week ago today, Illinois stunned the nation by knocking off #1 Indiana in Champaign. The orange and blue followed that shocker up with wins against Minnesota and Purdue, erasing tons of doubt among the fan base. Marcus Jackson (Champaign News-Gazette, IlliniHQ.com) and I discuss the Illini’s senior leadership, emerging defense and push for the NCAA tournament.

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It’s funny how things can change in under a week.

Six days ago, Illini nation was preparing for the top ranked Hoosier hurricane to roll into Champaign’s Assembly Hall. John Groce’s group was in a tailspin, having dropped six of seven games in Big Ten play. Collective sighs of “here we go again” rang throughout the fanbase. National pundits began using three letters (NIT) instead of four (NCAA) for the team’s postseason plans. As I left work last Thursday, I turned the radio dial to one of the local sports stations. It was two hours before the Illinois-Indiana clash.

“Pack up the fort,” one of the hosts said. “[Their] tournament dreams end tonight.”

Fast forward to a little after 7:45 p.m. Indiana was leading 69-59 with 4:23 remaining. I wasn’t able to watch the game, but some of my friends were already giving the Illini last rites via text. As a lifelong fan, this process was nothing new to me. Just another hot start in the regular season coupled with the wheels falling off once the meaty conference season picked up. I turned the phone from vibrate to silent. Enough was enough.

D.J. Richardson must have felt the same way.

The Illinois senior guard went bananas in the closing minutes, scoring eight points and stealing the ball from Victor Oladipo with :06 on the clock in a 72-72 tie. The steal and ensuing drive down the floor — Oladipo swatted D.J.’s layup into the seats — set the stage for Tyler Griffey’s game-winning layup as time expired, a play that will live forever in Illini lore.

When I glanced back at my phone at 8:15 p.m. to see that Illinois had pulled off the unthinkable, two thoughts rushed to my head: Kam’s is going to be a free-for-all and more importantly, this could be a season saver. Not just because they knocked off the nation’s #1 team; because two struggling seniors answered the call when the team needed them most.

Richardson (23 pts, 3 stls, 4-8 3PT) was the major catalyst, but Tyler Griffey was just as important. The senior from Wildwood, Mo., tallied 14 points and 8 rebounds against Indiana, a serious performance for a guy that scored 16 points combined in the team’s previous seven games. If anybody needed to score a game-winning bucket for confidence purposes, it was Griffey. He also made two threes against IU — his only two conversions since Jan. 2 at Purdue — and went on to nail four more in Illinois’ upset win at Minnesota on Sunday.

Illini fans love to critique Brandon Paul when things go wrong. As the team’s best player/athlete/prospect, Paul is going to catch flak when the team isn’t winning. That’s just the way it works. That said, BP would likely be the first to tell you he needs his fellow seniors to continue to play at a high level. It’s not a coincidence that when Griffey started struggling, the team followed suit.

Groce’s offense is predicated on high pick-and-roll and the drive-and-kick to open shooters. Griffey is far from a banger on the block and he’s not going to clean the offensive glass. However, it’s essential for him to be on the floor as much as possible because of spacing. In the stretch “4” role, Griffey has proven that he can be a matchup nightmare against slower bigs. He’s a very good shooter from mid-range and the perimeter, and when opposing defenses guard him out to the arch, it opens up driving lanes for Paul, Richardson and point guard Tracy Abrams. And when Brandon Paul is driving to the basket (and getting to the foul line), Illinois is at it’s best.

I don’t blame Groce for changing his rotations and trying to play Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin together more often. He had to read and react to Griffey’s lack of confidence. Well, now it’s time to ride the hot hand. There’s newfound life in Griffey’s game as he’s scored 30 points in the last two contests. A confident Griffey is a scary thing. It might seem silly that a layup could turn somebody’s season around. Then again, most layups don’t end the way Griffey’s did against IU. Most people don’t get the chance to be carried around their home court like a hero.

The enigmatic Illini will continue to puzzle me until season’s end. If they win tonight at home against Purdue, they’ll jump up to seventh place in the Big Ten, which is one spot behind where I projected them to finish. Of course, I could see the Boilers’ defensive schemes ruffling the Illini feathers and making this a one possession game. It’s what Matt Painter’s teams usually do. A loss to Purdue and Illinois will temporarily re-enter NIT territory and the questions will flow from all angles. That’s life in the Big Ten for you.

Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Indiana can testify that Illinois is a dangerous basketball team. And a Top 30 RPI and the nation’s toughest schedule according to kenpom.com proves that they’ve been through some battles. Still, the team’s postseason plans are far from final. The Illini need to protect their crib (Purdue, Penn State, Nebraska) and probably win one of the four remaining road games to avoid a cold sweat on Selection Sunday.

One thing is for certain, fans of the orange and blue will be nervously awaiting the next “dud” over the season’s last four weeks. For a team that lives and dies with the three-point shot and rarely wins rebounding wars, Illinois is as streaky as they come. If their seniors deliver though, anything is possible.

What a ride it should be.

There’s no shortage of storylines for Super Bowl XLVII in the Big Easy. John and Jim. Ray and Patrick. Joe and Colin. Alex Quigley and I discuss the Xs and Os, the national anthem, deer antler spray, Gatorade baths and a receiver now known as “jerkface.”

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For the first time since 1977, two Top 10 teams will battle at The Barn. #9 Minnesota hosts #5 Michigan in a game that I promise you will come down to more than just how good Trey Burke is. The Wolverines All-American point guard  is certainly the straw that stirs the drink, but he will need all sorts of help tonight to knock off the Gophers in Minneapolis. I wrote before the Minnesota-Illinois game that I’m real high on the Gophs this year. Of course, I had Illinois protecting their home court and they didn’t. (Insert excuse). For real though, Minnesota finished last season on a roll, reaching the NIT final and building tons of momentum for this season.

Everything the Gophers do starts with defense. It’s Tubby Smith basketball. It’s physicality, it’s rebounding, it’s offense off of defense. That’s what this group does so well. Minnesota doesn’t have the “star power” of a Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr., but they get out and guard the hell out of you for 40 minutes. And while John Beilein has his best team to date in Ann Arbor, there are still some concerns about the Wolverines. They still shoot too many jumpshots and have a tendency to settle rather than slash. Nik Stauskus and Tim Hardaway at times have Brandon Paul syndrome. Too many deep contested shots, not enough driving into the teeth of the defense. Burke has an uncanny ability to facilitate the offense, but Michigan is a much different team in transition than they are in the halfcourt. Points in the paint and rebounding are going to be the difference tonight and I have to give the Gophers the advantage there. Surely, Minnesota is fully aware of this and will align their game plan accordingly.

Michigan has the best backcourt in the nation, but that’s not always enough to win on the road in the Big Ten. The Wolverine frontcourt has to have a monster game on the glass and Jordan Morgan has to get going early. Athletic Minnesota bigs Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams will alter looks in the paint and vacuum up most offensive rebounding chances for U of M. Beilein’s bunch relies so much on their 1-2 punch away from the Breslin Center — Hardaway and Burke combined for 28 shots against OSU — and that’s not something that changes overnight. Unfortunately for Michigan fans, their guards and wings are facing their biggest defensive challenge to date. Pending one of those 25 to 30 point games from Burke, Minnesota will bounce back with a premiere win at the Barn.

Minnesota 71, Michigan 64.

Fresh off a bruising 17-point win at Illinois, the eighth ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers travel to Bloomington Saturday to battle #5 Indiana. Gophers beat writer Marcus Fuller of the Pioneer Press joins me as we discuss Tubby Smith’s best team to date in Minneapolis.

Ben Nance hops on the line as we preview this weekend’s four NFL divisional round playoff matchups: Ravens-Broncos, Packers-49ers, Seahawks-Falcons and a game close to Ben’s heart — Texans-Patriots, Part II.

Let me start by saying that I am very high on Minnesota this year. Tubby Smith is my pick for Coach of the Year and we’re not even halfway through January yet. That said, winning on the road in the Big Ten is harder than you think. And Minnesota wants no part of the buzzsaw that is a jam packed orange clad Assembly Hall. This oncoming three game stretch for the Golden Gophers — at Illinois, at Indiana, vs. Michigan — will be their toughest of the season. And until I see consistency for 40 minutes in a Big Ten road game, it’s hard to blindly back Tubby’s boys.

Is this just a case of my Illini homerism shining through, you ask? Not really. Those that have been reading my stuff for the last few years know I’m the first one to go against the orange and blue in a tough spot. (Notice there’s no write-up on this site for the loss at Purdue). Illinois is just a totally different monster at home. They shoot the rock so much better in Champaign and the lively crowd puts much needed confidence into their games. I would want zero piece of Minnesota in The Barn. It’s a different story in Illini country.

Minnesota likes to play a fast paced game. They like to run up and down the floor and utilize their athletic roster. It just so happens that Illinois prefers much of the same. I’m much more worried about teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin, clubs that want to slooooow things down. Those are the type of games that drive Illinois absolutely nuts. On the other hand, tempo has been the biggest turnover from Bruce Weber to John Groce. Illinois thrives in games where they’re able to showcase their strengths. This will be one of them. Transition basketball is something that the Illini want to partake in. They’ll get their chances tonight.

Brandon Paul continues to play the best basketball of his career and is capable of going for 25 every night, but it’s the supporting cast that’s been the difference. D.J. Richardson and Joe Bertrand are solid two-way players that can counter the likes of Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams will give you highlight reel slams, but can they consistently catch, turn and score? I haven’t seen it. The Gophers are at their best when they’re hounding you with their stout perimeter defense and forcing turnovers, much like Illinois. It’s two similar styles in Champaign and I have to give the edge to the home team.

Illinois is constantly labeled as a soft team that can’t rebound the basketball. And because Minnesota “rebounds the ball well,” the Illini are supposed to have an uphill battle according to pundits. I get all that, I do. But where’s the love for the way Groce has his team violently attacking the paint off of pick and roll? When Tracy Abrams slashes off a Nnanna Egwu screen, you have to commit to one or the other or you’ll get burned. And we haven’t even talked about Illinois’ ability to hit the three point shot. They stretch the floor so well and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, a quickly passed basketball moves a whole lot faster than an athletic defender. Pay attention to the Illini perimeter passing. It’s a thing of beauty. Not to mention, the Gophers aren’t a very good three point shooting team and if they get into a downtown shootout, they will lose.

Tonight, Illinois gets another chance to prove you wrong. They did it in Maui. They did it at Gonzaga. They did it last weekend against Ohio State. And there’s another solid shot they’ll do it again tonight.

Illinois 70, Minnesota 68.

New Year’s Eve was eight days ago. On that final day of 2012, the Bulls suffered their most shocking defeat of the season, a 101-91 home loss to the Bobcats. Charlotte had lost 18 straight games and their first round draft pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t even lace ’em up, yet they shocked the Bulls on their own floor.

One of the few highlights was Carlos Boozer’s 19 points and 14 rebounds. Of course, individual stats tend to be irrelevant if the team doesn’t win, so you could say Boozer’s second straight double-double flew a little under the radar. Well, the Bulls have played three games since the calendar turned — three wins, three more Boozer double dips.

The rejuvenated 31-year-old kept the good times rolling with 24 and 11 in the Bulls’ 118-92 win last night over the Cavaliers. While a win over lowly Cleveland without their best post player (Anderson Varejao) might not be a big deal, Boozer is on a heater that cannot be ignored. He shot 50 percent from the floor, went 8-for-8 at the line, splashed in jumpers from the elbow and converted two three-point plays in victory.

“A New Year, we got a couple new resolutions and the biggest one is to get more wins,” said the elated Dukie.

The Bulls have won four of five games and Boozer has been the biggest catalyst. He’s shooting 52 percent from the floor and averaging 23 points and 12 rebounds over that span. He’s fighting for post position. He’s getting his elbows dirty on defense. Most importantly, he’s playing with confidence, perhaps a direct correlation with his rising shot count.

“Boozer is playing very well,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We’re feeding him often. Getting established in the post is very important for us. He’s making a lot of good plays. So it’s all good.”

Dare I say it, Boozer’s recent run has been his best in red and white. For two years and seven months, he’s heard the critics. In “Summer 2010,” Bulls fans dreamt the team would sign a star — or stars — to pair with a blossoming Derrick Rose. After missing the boat on Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, the Bulls sprung for Boozer.

Bulls GM Gar Forman gave Boozer a 5 year, $75 million dollar max contract on July 7, 2010, ensuring that he depart Salt Lake City for the Second City. There was also hope that Boozer’s arrival would persuade LeBron James to come too. But less than 24 hours later, LeBron announced on national television that he was taking his talents to South Beach, making the already high expectations for Boozer rise even higher.

When the Heat rattled off four straight wins to eliminate the Bulls 4-1 from the ensuing Eastern Conference Finals, Boozer was drilled by local sports talk radio hosts for his lack of production. He was lambasted for being “outtoughed” by Chris Bosh in the paint. The lasting image of Boozer that season is one of him waving a towel on the sidelines.

The Boozer I saw last night is different.

Sure, there’s plenty of ball left to be played, but No. 5 is getting into a groove. He and frontcourt mate (and deserving All-Star) Joakim Noah are controlling the glass and leading the way on a team that’s tied for first place. It’s a pleasant sign that the once banged up Bulls are getting healthier and starting to round into form. Plus, they’ll look even better once Coach Thibs perfects his rotations off the bench.

While the Bulls fight to prove that they belong with the big guns in the East, optimism will continue to build. As we get closer to the All-Star Break, whispers of Derrick Rose’s return will linger around like the smell of arena popcorn. For now, fans everywhere should be pleased with the recent burst of life. The Bulls have their sights set on a home playoff series, but one thing is for certain. Chicago will need their $75 million man to keep balling the rest of the way. It’s a necessity if they want to play spoilers this spring.

Momentum is everything in this game and Boozer has it. Let’s hope it’s a long time before it fades away.

After starting off the season 12-0, Illinois has dropped two of three games including a real stinker in West Lafayette to the Boilermakers. So is the glass half full or half empty? I’ll say half full because that three game stretch consisted of two neutral site games and a road contest in the Big Ten. It’s always been difficult to win away from home in this conference, something that Ohio State will find true this afternoon in Champaign. That’s why I’m not worried about John Groce and company. Expectations for December and January grew far too high after the first year head coach rifled off Ws in his first twelve contests. In the Big Ten, lumps are going to come in bunches on the road. To survive in this conference, you have to protect your house.

Well, the Illini return home for the first time since December 16 and will get some much needed home cooking at the Assembly Hall. This is the ultimate “buy low, sell high” situation given Illinois’ likely bounce back performance and Ohio State’s recent trouncing of lowly Nebraska in Columbus that made the Buckeyes look way better than they really are. Thad Matta’s teams always defend extremely well — they rarely allow second chance opportunities — and like everybody else, they’ve got an interior size advantage against Illinois. Still, OSU is far from flawed. They’re having problems scoring in the half court and the offense is relying far too much on junior Deshaun Thomas. Last season, Ohio State had three guys that could give you 15 every single night. Well, Jared Sullinger and William Buford aren’t walking through that door, and the Buckeyes will struggle when Thomas has an off day. I am looking forward to seeing how Groce fronts #1 in red. If it were me, Joe Bertrand would see big minutes against Thomas. Bertrand is the definition of a sparkplug, he makes high energy plays and can defend the opposition’s best player thanks to his length and athleticism. That’ll be the matchup to watch.

It’s no secret what Illinois wants to do. They’re going to run pick and roll and high ball screens to isolate their strong shooting personnel. The Illini have four players in their starting lineup that can hit the three point shot, something no other team in the Big Ten can claim. Is that a solid strategy to make a push for a Big Ten regular season title? No way. Groce told me around Thanksgiving that his squad needs to rebound better and that will remain a cause for concern all season long. Still, the “shoot, shoot, shoot” style works in the confines of your own gym. Familiar rims are friendly to the Illini down in Champaign and they are going to play to their strengths. If the Illini 3s are falling, Ohio State is in trouble. The Buckeyes haven’t seen a team that can stretch the floor like Illinois all season long and I want to see how OSU reacts. Amir Williams and Sam Thompson have been able to camp on the blocks and grab rebounds that fall right into their hands. Let’s see what happens when they have to account for Illinois bigs that step away from the basket and space the floor so well.

Plain and simple, this is a good spot for Illinois. They’ll be playing in front of a sellout orange clad crowd for the first time in a long time and they’re too ready to put this Purdue loss on the back burner. Brandon Paul, who went off for 43 points against OSU last year, is going to get his, but the key is to get 10 a piece from Bertrand and D.J. Richardson. DJR has been on a cold streak the last few games and there’s nobody happier to return to the Hall then him. Another thing to watch is the point total between the two point guards, Tracy Abrams and Aaron Craft. Both players really turn things up a notch on the defensive end, so I’ll set the combined O/U at 17.5. Look for this one to go back and forth most of the way until Paul takes over near the end. Illinois will be a dangerous team at home this season and there’s enough here situationally to think the Illini knock off an Ohio State team playing in just their second true road game.

Illinois 70, Ohio State 68

Predicted Finish
1. Indiana
2. Michigan
3. Minnesota
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
6. lllinois
7. Iowa
8. Wisconsin
9. Purdue
10. Northwestern
11. Nebraska
12. Penn State

Bold = NCAA Tourney team

All-Big Ten First Team
G – Trey Burke, Michigan
G – Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
G – Brandon Paul, Illinois
F – Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
F – Cody Zeller, Indiana

Player of the Year: Cody Zeller, Indiana
Coach of the Year: Tubby Smith, Minnesota
Freshman of the Year: Glenn “Little Big Dog” Robinson III, Michigan
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Sixth Man of the Year: Will Sheehey, Indiana