The Task at Hand

Fresh off the biggest win of the season over Ohio State, Illinois must feed the fire that led to that bounce-back performance while preparing for Minnesota.

CHAMPAIGN - Social media and message boards are hard for a college athlete to ignore, in good times and bad.

You can turn off the television or throw away the newspaper. But the new wave of news dissemination, including Facebook and Twitter, makes it hard to let go of the feelings that come with wins and losses.

Some in Illini Nation were shook up about the home team's longterm chances following last week's loss to Purdue. That led to vitriol seeping through all possible cracks, many of which flowed to players phones or computers.

It can be hard to avoid. Near impossible, even.

"People got crazy after the Purdue loss, doubting us and what not," guard Brandon Paul said.

So with the negativity out in the open, John Groce did what good coaches do -- he turned it into an advantage. He asked (or challenged) his team, how are you going to get up off the mat?

"I think we answered that question," he said.

Oh, indeed. The Illini answered, beating Ohio State by 19 in Assembly Hall Saturday in a game that wasn't close.

The team turned back into the force that began the season 12-0 and nearly beat Missouri in a classic edition of the Braggin' Rights game.

It showed the toughness and effort that was lacking at times in a close win over Auburn and the defeat in West Lafayette.

In knocking off then No. 8 OSU in such convincing fashion, the team instantly restored the confidence of tweeters and message board haters, who replaced pitchforks and torches with high fives and a round of beverages.

And that's the groundwork for the next issue -- dealing with success. Because as quickly as negativity spreads, positive shots find their target, too.

The Illini proved they could bounce back from a disappointing loss, an important trait of a team with lofty goals.

Now the task is to show they can manage the good times, get back to business and work with that same fire and chip on their shoulder to get the next win.

It may sound a bit dramatic, but it's a legit concern for college coaches who always seem to be managing situations that might appear mundane to those on the outside of the locker room.

"Now we're in a different situation with 18 to 22 year olds where you're handling a situation where we played well Saturday and did some good things," Groce said. "Now we've got to handle that appropriately and bottle up that same toughness and togetherness that we had on Saturday and we've got to have that again (Wednesday) night against a very, very physical, athletic, deep (Minnesota team that's) No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding."

Ask the players about this and you'll get all the right cliches.

"We can't get too high or too low after a win or a lose," Joe Bertrand said. "We're going to stay level."

Added Paul: "We prepare for every game the same so we're obviously pumped for the challenge. It's not going to be easy."

Clearly, the players are telling us the right things. But showing is always better.

Perhaps playing into Illinois favor is the fact that it's Minnesota coming into town. The Golden Gophers are ranked No. 8 in the country, marking the first time since 1987 that Illinois will have faced two Top Ten Big Ten foes in consecutive games.

So, it's safe to say it won't be hard to get up for this one.

"The Big Ten is really tough this year," Bertrand noted. "We've got a lot of ranked teams in it. It should be a good challenge for us to see what type of team we are."

It's true that each win counts the same, just like each loss will, too. But college basketball isn't black and white. There's gray matter in play. Illinois fans found that out the hard way last year, where one conference loss led to another until there were no postseason games to play.

Last season's collapse probably created the fickle environment where each loss and win pulls the crowd down and up, down and up, from the lowest low to the highest high (and it's certainly not every fan, but the most passionate tweet the loudest).

Illinois answered the first quiz -- responding against a tough opponent following a letdown.

Now for the next portion of the test -- stringing together back-to-back performances against top-notch competition, playing basketball the way Groce intends it to be played.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a win, but the game needs to be won or lost in similar fashion to the way Illinois beat Gonzaga and fell to Missouri, not like what was seen in the victory over Auburn and the loss to Purdue.

"It's just a matter of us going out with the same effort, energy, toughness, togetherness that we had on Saturday and our ability to execute the game plan," Groce said.

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