Illinois carrying momentum into Big Ten play


Illinois’ Tracy Abrams (13) reads the defense during the game against Illinois-Chicago at the United Center on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013. The Illini won, 74-60.

CHICAGO — “Season Two” starts Sunday.

Illinois head basketball coach John Groce divides the college basketball calendar into three seasons: nonconference play, conference play and postseason play.

With Illinois’ 74-60 win over Illinois-Chicago on Saturday in Chicago, Illinois finished Season One at 11-2. The Illini have a few hours to celebrate before it’s back to business.

“I always try, especially after a win, to tell them to enjoy it,” Groce said. “And then when they wake up tomorrow morning, to forget it happened.

“When we come in tomorrow, it’s all business and preparing our team to play well on Tuesday.”

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The Illini celebrated the win over UIC as they left the United Center for Champaign about an hour after the end of Saturday’s game.

But when Tuesday arrives, Indiana comes to State Farm Center, and thus begins grueling 18-game Big Ten schedule. Few conferences can rival the toughness and the physicality of the Big Ten season.

“It’s time to be smart and take care of your body,” junior center Nnanna Egwu said after Saturday’s win. “The Big ten is tough, there’s lot of great teams. We have to have the mindset to attack. Each game is going to be a big game.”

There are no stretches of easy games in the Big Ten, for anyone. Illinois opens with Indiana on Tuesday and follows it with a home game against Penn State on Jan. 4 before traveling to No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 8.

Egwu knows the Illini haven’t started conference play on the right foot in either of his previous two seasons in orange and blue.

“The main thing about Big Ten season is you have to be consistent,” Egwu said. “The last few years we haven’t been consistent enough.”

Although Groce didn’t think his team played with much toughness in Saturday’s first half, he has liked the overall toughness and togetherness — qualities he drills into his player’s heads all season long — through nonconference play.

It’s the execution he wants to see improve.

“I always want (execution) to happen fast,” Groce said. “But Ray (Rice) didn’t play last year, Jon (Ekey) wasn’t here last year. Are we closer today than when we started? Yes. But we’ve still got some work to do there.”

Fifth-year senior Joseph Bertrand said playing in so many close games — Illinois had six games within seven points in nonconference play — has prepared the Illini for the rigors of the Big Ten.

With eight teams already reaching double-figures in the win column, and three teams ranked in the top-five, it will be rigorous. The Illini started conference play 2-7 in 2012, Groce’s first taste of Big Ten play as a head coach.

“That’s one big thing with the conference, it’s a lot of close games,” Bertrand said. “It always comes down to the last seconds or getting a stop. That’s really tested us in nonconference, so I think we’re ready.”

“We can’t go on a losing streak,” Egwu said. “In March, I want an actual chance of winning this thing.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.