With gauntlet looming, Illini must keep foot on gas

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill takes a shot after during the game against Coppin State on Sunday. Hill attributed the Illini’s opening night struggles to a “too-cool” mentality.

If you’re already tired of watching Illinois basketball play schools you’ve never heard of, I have good news.

The Illini will get their first real test in a week, at the Las Vegas Invitational during Thanksgiving weekend. They’ll play two games in two days against actual teams with name recognition, broadcast on actual TV (not just online) and it will feel like college basketball has actually arrived in central Illinois.

But until then, the Illini must take care of business on Friday and Monday, with Austin Peay and Brown set to visit State Farm Center for two games in four days. Illinois already has two wins under its belt, and its 114-56 victory over Coppin State came in impressive fashion. The 80-71 slugfest against Georgia Southern? Not so much.

Sophomore Malcolm Hill attributed his team’s opening night struggles to a “too-cool” mentality the team felt in its first game of the season.

“We were probably feeling ourselves a little bit,” Hill said after the Coppin State victory. “We had to get out of that funk.”

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Hill’s right. The Illini had to get out of that funk, and they did Sunday afternoon. Now, the trick is making sure that funk is gone for good.

Kentucky probably had that “too-cool” mindset in its game Sunday against Buffalo, when they trailed 38-33 at half and didn’t pull away for a victory until late in the contest. But the Wildcats have nine McDonald’s All-American’s on their roster, and an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. They’re also apparently capable of flipping a switch when the bright lights come on, as evidenced by their 30-point demolition of No. 5 Kansas Tuesday night.

Illinois, which has been all too susceptible to prolonged “funks” in Groce’s first two years in charge, doesn’t have the same leverage as a team like Kentucky when it comes to taking opponents lightly. They can’t even let the idea of a funk creep into the team’s collective mindset. For this team atthis point, overlooking opponents leads to losses, and losses can lead to slumps.

The players know this. After Georgia Southern, Groce made sure to reiterate what type of focus he expects them to bring, game in and game out. So look for the Illini to carry their defensive intensity from the Coppin State game into Friday’s matchup with Austin Peay. I wouldn’t anticipate the Illini will make another 15 threes, but a concentrated effort on the defensive end will lead to easy transition baskets for the Illini, which will be enough to overwhelm both Austin Peay and Brown.

Soon Illinois will be challenged for real, as the next month contains the gauntlet of its nonconference slate. They are guaranteed a game against either Baylor or Memphis next Friday, and both teams will bring athleticism on a level the Illini haven’t faced yet this season. In two weeks, Miami awaits, with an impressive win over No. 8 Florida under its belt. Oregon is solid as well, and the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri is usually competitive. No. 12 Villanova also looms as likely the Illini’s toughest test before Big Ten play.

For the Illini, the next two games will be about maintaining the intense style of play we saw against Coppin State, so that it’s second nature by the time they arrive in Vegas. If Illinois can embed a high level of intensity in its culture to the point where anything less than full intensity is unacceptable, the team will be much less prone to slumps with the talent that they have on the floor.

As Hill would say, the players can’t be “feeling themselves” until after they win. The intensity is already there at the top, in the form of its head coach.

The team just has to bring it.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.