Illinois 84, Minnesota 71
CHAMPAIGN - John Groce needs wins to show new athletics director Josh Whitman he's the right man for the job for the foreseeable future.
Groce won twice on Sunday. First with a halftime commitment from top-50 Class of 2017 commitment Da'Monte Williams (the son of Illini great Frank Williams) and next with an 84-71 home win over Minnesota.
Maybe Williams commitment sparked the current Illini because they were putrid in the first half. Or maybe it was Whitman's halftime speech at the State Farm Center.
Regardless, the Illini looked rejuvenated following a pitiful first half.
The Gophers announced prior to the game that three of their top six scorers -- Nate Mason (13.8 ppg, 4.5 apg), Kevin Dorsey (6.8 ppg) and Dupree McBrayer (5.9 ppg) -- had been suspended for violation of team rules. Just two weeks prior, the team dismissed senior Carlos Morris (9.8 ppg) for "detrimental conduct." Despite missing four of its top six scorers, the Gophers (8-20, 2-14 Big Ten) took a 40-28 lead with 0:47 left in the first half.
But Illinois (13-16, 5-11 Big Ten) ran off a 39-10 run over the next 13 minutes to take control over the depleted Gophers, which led from the 19:25 mark of the first half to the 17:32 mark of the second half.
The Illini outscored Minnesota 52-31 in the second half, shooting 17-for-23 (72.3 percent) from the field. The Illini had nine second-half steals (and a season-high 13 steals) for the game), scoring 20 points off turnovers (16 in the second half).
The Gophers took an early 11-0 lead as they made three straight three-point attempts.
Jordan Murphy led the Gophers -- who had just eight players in uniform -- with 22 points and 10 rebounds, while Stephon Sharp added 19 points and Joey King added 17.
What it means
Like Rutgers, Minnesota is a reminder that there are Big Ten teams in worse shape than Illinois. The Illini have experienced injury woes and off-the-court issues. But John Groce's program still is in better shape than that of third-year Gophers coach Rich Pitino. So he's got that going for him ... which is nice. In all seriousness, it's nice just for Illinois to get a home win -- no matter who the opponent or their issues. With Whitman in attendance, Groce needs to sell progress. Sunday's won't do that, but it's a heck of a lot better than a loss to a team that right now would struggle to beat Horizon League teams. Groce needs to avoid further embarrassment and end the season with some kind of momentum -- and keep landing difference-making recruits.
What went right
Someone flipped the Illini swith in the second half. The Illini came out with fire and focus, especially on the defensive end. Stops are needed for runs, and the Illini were active in passing lanes and forced a lot of turnovers that led to easy buckets. Groce should loop that video on repeat at the practice facility.
The Illini shared the ball in the second half, as well. Passes were quick and crisp and the Illini limited one-on-one dribbling.
After poor performances in the first half (14 combined points), Hill and Nunn played like stars in the second half, combining for 33 points.
Coleman-Lands carried the Illini in the first half with his elite perimeter shooting. Over the last seven games, he is 28-for-58 from three (48.3 percent). He's also starting to attack more off the dribble. If he learns how to finish off the dribble during an actual offseason -- he missed the summer with a stress fracture in his lower left leg -- he could be one of the Big Ten's most dangerous offensive weapons.
What went wrong
Nunn, and to some extent Hill and the rest of the Illini, looked like they were going through the motions in the first half. What do Groce and these players need to do to play with fire and focus for 40 minutes? The Illini have put together great halves recently (first half vs. Wisconsin, first half vs. Indiana and second half vs. Minnesota), but they usually are paired with terrible halves (second half vs. Wisconsin, second half vs. Indiana and first half vs. Minnesota). Groce seems to be trying everything to decipher that code but the key seems to constantly change.
Michael Finke's struggles continue. He went scoreless for the first time this season. He is 8-for-25 (32.0 percent) -- including 3-for-13 from three (23.1 percent) -- in five games since suffering a knee contusion and missing the game at Rutgers.
Illinois was out-toughed on the glass for most of the night.
Star of the game
Malcolm Hill: While Nunn was great in the second half, Hill was more locked in early and did more of everything for Illinois. Coleman-Lands deserves consideration too because Illinois would've faced a much larger deficit if not for him.
Illinois ends the regular season with a two-game swing out East, starting with a 6 p.m. Thursday tipoff at Maryland. The Terrapins are out of the Big Ten title race after losing three of their last four, including a 13-point home loss to Wisconsin and a five-point road loss at Minnesota. But Maryland has supreme size and athleticism over the Illini, and even though Melo Trimble has struggled recently, he will be the best player on the floor. KenPom gives the Illini just an eight percent chance of victory and predicts a 15-point Illini loss.