CHAMPAIGN | When Indiana came to Champaign last season, the Hoosiers were on top of the world, ranked No. 1 in the country.
Illinois had lost six of seven and was headed in the opposite direction.
Tyler Griffey's game-winning layup at the buzzer ended all that, giving the Illini a season-changing win. They won five straight and eventually made the NCAA tournament.
"It meant a lot," second-year Illini coach John Groce said Monday. "I was really happy for our guys, the way they fought through to that point. We had gotten off to a rocky start in Big Ten play."
The Illini (11-2) open Big Ten play against the Hoosiers on Tuesday, but the circumstances are different this time. Neither team is ranked. The Hoosiers (10-3) have lost to all three teams on their schedule that could have provided resume-building wins.
Illinois, though, has a couple of nice wins — over then-No. 23 Missouri and at UNLV. And Groce, though heavily reliant on his five experienced starters, says his young players used the early schedule to develop.
"All those things, I think, allowed us to grow up at a pretty fast rate," he said.
Five things to watch as Illinois starts the Big Ten season:
Long haul in the Big Ten: Groce says he has stressed to his players how important it is to avoid emotional highs and lows as inevitable good runs and bad play out over the Big Ten schedule.
"We talked about the toughness that it requires — 18 games, two months. You can't get too high or too low in this league. I thought last years' team did a good job of that."
Illinois was 2-7 in the conference when Indiana came to town on Feb. 7. From there the Illini went 6-3 in the Big Ten.
Leaning on his starting five: So far this season, Illinois has used the same starting lineup in every game: guards Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand, forward Jon Ekey and forward/center Nnanna Egwu. Of the five freshmen on the roster, only guard Jaylon Tate is getting big minutes off the bench. He's averaging 16.4 minutes a game and is second on the team with 39 assists. And only eight players are playing regularly.
"I've always said I like to play nine or 10 guys," Groce said. "At the end of the day those guys have to earn playing time."
Hold court at home: Illinois' biggest conference wins last season, over Ohio State and Indiana, were at home, and the team went 5-4 in Champaign in the Big Ten. That home-court edge, Groce said Monday, is particularly important given the way Big Ten teams tend to beat up on each other. The Illini open the conference with two at home, against the Hoosiers and Penn State.
"I think good teams do a great job when they're at home. We've got two to start here," he said.
Rice's turn: When Griffey sank his big shot last season, Rice wasn't on the court.
Rice was sitting out the season after transferring from Drake, But since he got back on the court this fall, the Champaign native has become the most important player in the Illinois lineup. He's leading the team in scoring and is second in the conference at 18.2 points a game. More than once the junior has put the young team on his back and carried it to a win, most recently Saturday with 28 points at Illinois-Chicago. Watching that win over Indiana, he said, provided a key lesson to a player trying to make the move up from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big Ten.
"That we could compete with anybody if we come with the right mindset — if we play good defense and just the share the basketball, we'll be good," Rice said.
Defense and the boards: Illinois is 11th in the Big Ten in scoring at 71.2 points a game, but the Illini are among the best defensive teams, tied for second at 60.6 points allowed. When they win, they do it in large part on the defense and rebounding Groce stresses Illinois lacks a dominant rebounder, but everyone in the lineup can pull down a few. All five starters average at least 4.1 boards a game, and all but Abrams are averaging at least 5.3 rebounds a game.