Griffey Gets it Going

Tyler Griffey's reemergence coincided with Illinois' reemergence, a fact that's most likely not coincidence.

CHAMPAIGN – Not necessarily the most talented or valuable player on Illinois' roster, Tyler Griffey's worth to Coach John Groce isn't easy to outline.

Broadly speaking, Illinois wins games when Tyler Griffey is playing well.

No, the senior from Wildwood, Mo., doesn't possess the raw ability of Brandon Paul. And as long as the 3-point shooting, tenacious defensive stalwart D.J. Richardson is around, Griffey isn't going to win the team MVP Award.

But as evidenced in the Illini's past two wins, he's just as vital to the team's success as Paul or Richardson or anybody.

That he hit the game-winning shot against Indiana and led the team in scoring against Minnesota may have surprised some due to his subpar play in the month of January. But Groce says his trust in Griffey never wavered.

"I just have told him numerous times here I believe in him," Groce said. "I do. And (I told him) not to pay attention to what anyone outside our locker room walls are saying. Don't get caught up in all of that."

Perhaps a statistical coincidence, but it's true nonetheless – Illinois started losing near the beginning of the conference slate when Griffey's overall play began to decline.

The Illini defeated Ohio State Jan. 5 despite Griffey shooting 0 for 6 from 3 and scoring two points.

From that point until last Thursday's upset of Indiana, Illinois dropped six of seven as Griffey failed to hit a single three or reach double figures in scoring as he lost his spot in the starting lineup.

The scoring was an obvious absence. Still, Griffey worked to provide in other areas of the game. He had six points and six rebounds against Northwestern. He followed that with another six-rebound performance against Nebraska.

"Really challenged him to do things other than just be a guy that can be counted on to make a shot," Groce said at the time. "I thought he did that. I thought he rebounded well. I thought he was more physical."

Ultimately though, the team needed more points from the forwards, and Griffey's dip in the point total paralleled a tough stretch for the team as a whole.

Groce defended his player at every opportunity, but Griffey's time on the court began to dwindle. He saw only 14 minutes versus Michigan. That dropped to 10 against Michigan State and a season-worst eight versus Wisconsin.

Then came Indiana. Even early in that game, after a few makes from inside the arc, Griffey was hesitating to attempt long-range shots.

"SHHHOOOOOTTT," Groce and his staff collectively yelled out after Griffey passed up an open look during the first half.

Later in the game, Griffey heeded the advice, taking and making a 3-pointer in the second half. 36 days and 20 attempts had passed between made 3s, a streak Griffey was relieved to break.

"I just said to myself, finally," he said. "I've gotten a lot of shots up between when I started missing them until now, so much that my wrist has been hurting.

"You know, once I saw that one go down it was a good confidence booster."

Griffey then hit another 3, finished the game with 14 points and eight rebounds and, of course, converted the game-winning basket at the buzzer.

"It was a great moment, for me personally and for our team," Griffey said.

It would have been easy to hop on the bandwagon at that point, after such a great performance. But Groce wasn't the only one that didn't waver during Griffey's rough stretch. Griffey's teammates knew all along how much he was needed, too. The night before the Indiana game, Paul sent Griffey a text message.

"What he basically said was, both our shots were struggling, and we just got to find other ways to contribute to the team win," Griffey said. "I think that goes with what he said, we both made plays down the stretch and did that."

Griffey continued his revamped play Sunday at Minnesota. His four free throws carried the team when it started the game without a made field goal in the opening 10 minutes.

He hit three 3s in the second half, one to tie the game at 40 and the last to extend the lead to 52-48.

He finished with a game-high 16 points and added four rebounds. Still doing all the other things, such as rebounding and providing leadership and a defensive presence, the scoring had returned. And so did the wins.

"He's practiced well," Groce said. "He broke out of his, whatever you want to call it, shooting funk, but he had rebounded the ball very well in practice. He had rebounded the ball well in some games during that stretch."

Although only a little more than a week ago, it feels like a lot of time has passed since that Wisconsin loss, where Griffey failed to score and didn't play much. In the two games since, he's averaged 15 points, six rebounds, 30.5 minutes played and shot 46 percent from downtown.

While he's not Paul or Richardson, the Illini win games when Griffey plays like this.

For those forecasting into March, Griffey is a vital factor in the predictions.

"I've been putting in a lot of work before and after practice getting shots up, so it was a good confidence booster for me and, hopefully I can expand and take it from there," he said.

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