There may or may not have been much optimism heading into that early February matchup with top-ranked Indiana (depending on who you ask and if they're telling the truth), but it matters none now. Fourteen days and four wins later, the Fighting Illini (19-8, 6-7) can reach 20 wins for the season and even their conference record to .500 Thursday against Penn State (8-17, 0-13) in the Assembly Hall.
"It's a tribute to all our hard work," senior forward Tyler Griffey said. "We're clicking at the right time, and we're just going to continue to build on it. Penn State is the only thing we're worried about."
After opening John Groce's first year at the helm with 12 straight wins, the Illini were humbled in the month of January. Losing six of seven games at one point, Groce never wavered in his plan, never strayed from the course he outlined long before that string of losses cropped up. Practice routines, film sessions, academic expectations – everything remained the same.
"Every game our approach has been the same," Groce said. "We prepare the same way. We watch the same amount of film. We've just got to do what we do at a high level, and we've got to do that consistently. That's what we're hoping for."
While everything going on before the games remained unchanged, the on-court measures for success were altered.
To begin the year, the Illini embodied the saying, ‘live by the 3, die by the 3.' Hoisting long range shots was a good approach, good enough to win the Maui Invitational and to defeat Gonzaga on the road.
But when the shooting soured early in conference play and the losses mounted, the most logical notion seemed to be that Illinois had to make shots to win games, period.
The team had lived and thrived when the shots were going in. It reeled and died went those shots missed, or so the correlation went.
The recent trend, however, dispels the idea that the do or die stripe is marked off 20.75 feet from the basket. The Illini were 35.8 percent from the 3-point line in the last four wins, hitting 33 of 92 attempts.
That's not bad, but it's not the primary reason Illinois won.
"Right now this stretch is the best we've defended all year," Groce said. "We've got to continue to build on it."
The numbers support Groce's view. Since the Indiana game, no team has scored more than 59 points or shot better than 38 percent against the Illini. Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern – two of which hosted Illinois – combined to shoot 26.6 percent (16 of 60) from beyond the 3-point arc.
Once again, Groce says nothing changed in order to bring about different results. The positive gains, he said, stemmed from the players buying into how important defense is and the natural development of understanding the system.
"I tell them all the time there's a difference between playing defense and having a commitment to getting stops," Groce said. "That's different. I think we've been the latter more in the last four games than we have at any part of the season.
"I want to coach guys when they get scored on they're ticked off. I think that some of those guys are starting to develop that mindset more."
Seniors D.J. Richardson and Sam McLaurin, according to those in and around the program, receive most of the credit for spearheading the defensive initiative. They're commonly acknowledged as the best defenders and most vocal on that end of the floor. The rest of the players, though, are grading out as high as they have all season, which according to Groce, is creating a logjam for positions in the starting lineup (determined by grades for games and practices) and minutes during the game.
"It's a nice problem to have," he said.
Added guard Tracy Abrams: "It's something that we definitely have been using to our advantage. We know we have to guard in order for us to win. Last few games we've been doing that, and we have to keep it up."
With February drawing to a close, Illinois has used the next to last month of the season to turn it's fortunes around. With that said, now is not the time to look ahead, even with Penn State entering Thursday's matchup winless in conference play and without it's best player, Tim Frazier (out for the season due to injury).
Cliches such as ‘staying in the moment' and ‘one game at a time' have been used all season long. Still, Groce recently stepped up the effort to lock in the focus, telling his players they no longer can tweet messages to the public on Twitter.
"We'll think about it after the season," senior Brandon Paul said of social networking.
In the meantime, it's the same preparation and routine to get ready for Penn State.
"We're going to have be ready to play, no sleepwalking for us," Griffey said.