John Groce had his team ready to go. While his long-term status is still up in the air, Groce made a statement with what his team showed on Sunday in an 84-70 win over No. 20 Purdue. The matchup looked to be one fit for disaster. The Boilers have the best frontcourt in the Big Ten, while the Illini were coming off a game in East Lansing where they gave up 50 points in the paint. But Illinois found answers, which was a credit to their head coach. Groce lit a fire in his team during practice leading up to Sunday's clash. Malcolm Hill was not shy in saying that practice was like "hell" following the drubbing against Michigan State. The players certainly responded by showing the necessary toughness and fight over the course of 40 minutes. A big key was also Groce's defensive game plan, which minimized the personnel mismatches. The Illini utilized a mix of pack-line defense, 2-3 zone and full-court pressure to take the Boilers out of their game. A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan combined for just 10 points in the second half, as the Illini outscored Purdue 47-to-33 in the final 20 minutes. Groce has taken criticism for lack of adjustments and not having his team ready to compete. That wasn't the case in this one. The Illini hit on all cylinders, and Groce outcoached Matt Painter in a big win for the Orange and Blue.
The bounce-back theory. Say what you want about Groce over the course of his tenure, but he has proven his resilience after tough stretches in the Big Ten. The Illini dropped their first two games in Big Ten play last season and lost top scorer Rayvonte Rice to a broken hand. But the Illini responded with a win over No. 11 Maryland in the following game, and they went 6-3 in Rice's absence. In 2013-14, Illinois lost eight straight games in the heart of Big Ten play. But they went on to win six of their next nine games, which gave them a shot at the dance had they beaten Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. We saw a similar response in Year One for Groce, which resulted in an NCAA tournament appearance. The Illini went through a 1-6 stretch in conference play, but they bounced back with a five-game winning streak. That all started with an upset win at home against top-ranked Indiana. According to the KenPom rankings, Sunday's win over Purdue (No. 4) was the best win Illinois has had since beating Indiana (No. 2) in 2013.
Hill and Nunn looked like the best duo in the Big Ten. It's no secret that the Illini need their best players operating at a superb level to beat good teams. That's exactly what they got from Hill and Kendrick Nunn, who combined for 52 points in the victory. Purdue came into this game at No. 1 in the country in defensive efficiency, but they had no answer for the pair. Hill finished with 30 points and eight rebounds, as he reached the 30-point mark for the second time in his career. Meanwhile, Nunn had 22 points - including 18 in the second half - in an outstanding showing. Nunn's value to this team was exemplified after the Illini put up just 54 points at Michigan State. Hill and Nunn's combined total was the most points they've put up together all season. While they have a big burden on their shoulders, the junior duo showed that they give Illinois a fighting chance against anyone when they are both on their game. The Illini became the first team in 37 games to shoot over 50 percent against the Boilers.
Illinois got a team effort. While Nunn and Hill led the way, it was crucial for the Illini to get contributions across the board. Groce said he felt that everyone who played provided value. Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan were much improved at the defensive end, and they also added six points apiece. Jalen Coleman-Lands came off the bench to score 10 points, including a pair of triples. Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate combined for six assists, while Lewis also made an impact defensively with two steals. The Illini even got some flashes from D.J. Williams, who has really come along after a slow start to his freshman campaign. Williams had an impressive baseline drive and flush in the first half. He finished with two points, three rebounds and a steal in 18 minutes. There has been a big focus on the team that has formed on the "street clothes crew", and for good reason. Tracy Abrams, Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. would all be starting if they were in uniform. But even through those circumstances, the Illini proved they can win with what they have on the floor.
"I'm not interested in doing this just one day." That was Groce's response in the postgame press conference after the impressive victory. He wants Sunday's showing to be the standard instead of an outlier. The Illini now have the opportunity to build off this outing and use it as a baseline going forward. Fortunately, the schedule is shaping up in their favor after going through a four-game gauntlet to start conference play. The Illini will return to action on Saturday against Nebraska (9-8). They will follow that up with trips to Indiana (14-3) and Minnesota (6-10). Then, they will come back home for winnable tests against Ohio State (11-6) and Wisconsin (9-8). It remains to be seen whether the Illini can turn a positive into a run of favorable outcomes. But there's no question that they got some much-needed momentum and confidence from this win. It also gave some substantive hope for the fan base going through the remainder of the schedule and beyond. Finding a way to sustain that is the key for Illinois' season and the status of their head coach. It's Groce's nature to fight with his back against the ropes, and he got his team to do that on Sunday. Now, it's time for the Illini to show what they're made of.