Minds in the Moment

Illinois preps to follow up an emotional win against Indiana with a strong mindset versus Minnesota.

CHAMPAIGN – D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey hit the court early before practice Saturday, hoisting up shots set up by passes from assistant Jamall Walker.

"Get your minds right," Walker yelled out to the senior duo.

"My mind is right, Coach," Richardson said prior to launching a 3-pointer from the left corner.

That's a statement the Illinois coaching staff holds true through Sunday afternoon, as Illinois travels to No. 18 Minnesota with tipoff scheduled for 5:10 p.m.

According to Coach John Groce, The Fighting Illini (16-8, 3-7 Big Ten) had two days of practice where the team "looked sharp" following Thursday's thrilling win against top-ranked Indiana.

Clearly amid the emotional high point of the season to date, Groce and staff have worked toward balancing the feel-good of beating the Hoosiers and the reality-check of prepping for the Golden Gophers (17-6, 5-5 Big Ten).

"I wanted those guys to obviously enjoy it, embrace it," Groce said. "We've talked about that all year from the very beginning before we played a game, kind of relishing the moment."

There's a progression involved in the process of the season grind, something Groce has attempted to keep as consistent as possible in his first season at the helm. Relish the moments. Learn from the moments. Move ahead to the next moments.

With that in mind, Groce didn't alter the script.

Practice Friday lasted a little more than an hour and didn't involve contact.

According to Griffey, the workout "was more of a mental practice," that fellow senior Brandon Paul said was necessary for the team to recuperate.

"We came in and Coach made sure we didn't get too much on our bodies so we could get back physically and mentally at the same time," Paul said.

The team also watched film of the Indiana game Friday. Groce noted his team's toughness, togetherness, passion and trust in the system. But there were also mistakes on the defensive end of the floor he wanted to "clean up," as well as a few corrections to be made to offensive sets.

The next-day approach following the big win mimicked the 23 previous times the team arrived at the practice facility following a game.

"The one thing we've done is we've kept it the same after every game," Groce said.

"I think the guys appreciate that we try to stay right in the middle in terms of how we prepare for games, the opportunity after each game to learn from it regardless of what happens. That's been our approach and that's not going to change."

In the immediate moment, the win against Indiana brought forth national exposure, boosted the confidence of players like Griffey, who hit the game winning basket, and got Paul and Richardson back on track.

On a broader level, the chance for a berth in the NCAA Tournament was made much more realistic.

"We've still got a lot to prove," Richardson said. "That was one game. It was a big game, of course, but we've got more to prove. We've still got to make the NCAA Tournament. That's what we want to do."

Sunday's game with Minnesota provides opportunities, both to increase the odds of postseason dancing and redemption. The Golden Gophers pulled away for an easy victory in the first meeting between the two teams, winning 84-67 in the Assembly Hall Jan. 9.

Looking back at that performance may help prepare for the upcoming experience. The Illini had previously upset Ohio State by 19 points, making an early statement in conference play. But the momentum was abruptly halted by Minnesota in a game where the Illini allowed 50 second-half points.

Following that loss, Illinois lost five of the next six, playing vastly different than the team that won 14 of it's first 16 games.

"I think the biggest thing is just learning from kind of where we've been at this point," Groce said. "We've had some emotional big wins previously, and I thought that we came back that very next game and were just OK. We've talked about that. To do things you haven't done before you've got to do things you haven't done before, so you need a different mindset. The captains have talked a lot about that. I have over the last day or two."

In the first matchup, Minnesota scored 28 points in transition, exposing the Illini defense for a lack of communication.

That area was a mark of pride in the Indiana game, where Griffey said the team was vocal "at an all-time high."

With eight regular season games remaining, the toughness and togetherness used to defeat one of the best teams in the country must carry over if goals are to be reached.

Taking it one game at a time to meet re-enhanced expectations begins Sunday at Minnesota.

"Yeah it's difficult to win any game in the Big Ten," Paul said. "It's the toughest conference in the nation, hands down. We're staying positive. We believe we can win. Everybody is on the same page, and that's definitely going to help us."


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