Chicago Colleges: 2012-13 Season

The state of the Big Ten

November, 5, 2013

In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan State a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.

Deng thinks NU has winner in Collins

April, 2, 2013
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Chicago Bulls forward and Duke alum Luol Deng is happy that one of his former coaches, Chris Collins, was named the head coach at Northwestern on Tuesday.

Deng believes that Collins will be able to get the Wildcats back on track.

"I'm happy for him," Deng said. "I think he will do well. I think he's a good recruiter. I think he'll be able to give them different looks and different options of kids going in there, that's the first thing. In terms of basketball, he's a great guy. I think the kids will love him. But (he's) also a hard worker and has a high basketball IQ."

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No. 7 seed Illini to face No. 10 Colorado

March, 17, 2013
Illinois was selected Sunday to play in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed and will play No. 10-seeded Colorado in Austin, Tex. in the East region on Friday.

The Illinois-Colorado winner will play the winner of No. 2-seeded Miami and No. 15-seeded Pacific in the third round on Sunday.

“Our main goal throughout the season was just to get better every day, putting 100 percent,” Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul said. “3-19-13 (first day of the NCAA tournament) was on our wrist bands, and when we finally saw our name called it was pretty much a blessing. We were excited about it, and we were excited about the challenge ahead.”

The Illini went 22-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten. Their quality wins included at Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota, who they defeated twice. They are ranked No. 39 in RPI and No. 63 in ESPN’s BPI.

Colorado was 21-11 overall and 10-8 in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes’ quality wins include Arizona, Baylor and Oregon. They are ranked No. 38 in RPI and No. 39 in BPI.

Illinois began the season with 12 consecutive wins and shot up to No. 10 in the AP poll. After a 13-1 non-conference season, the Illini dropped seven of their first nine Big Ten games. They bounced back with a win over No. 1-ranked Indiana on Feb. 7 and closed out the conference season winning six of their final nine games.

“They had that (tournament) goal from the very beginning when I met with (them),” Illinois' first-year coach John Groce said. “They really solidified that as something they wanted to do in the fall when we first got together and talked in particular to our seniors. To see that come to fruition in a way they had to grind it out and be really tough at different parts of the season when maybe others doubted them, but I think it’s a great life lesson for our guys. Certainly not satisfied because we have work to do, but I’m a proud for those guys.”

Groce said after Friday’s loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament he was happy with the way his team was playing headed into the NCAA tournament.

“I would like to play two complete halves defensively and offensively. But I like our mindset,” Groce said. “I like our body language. I like our passion. I thought we really competed in this tournament both days. I thought we really played hard. I thought we played for one another. I think the guys are playing the game right way. Hopefully, we can continue to move forward here in the next few days and figure out how we can put together two halves when we’re defending and playing good offense. I think that’s the next step.”

Illinois did not appear in the NCAA Tournament last season and has been selected twice in the previous five years. The Illini haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005.

Illinois fired Bruce Weber after the program failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season. Groce was hired after taking Ohio to two NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012 in four seasons.

Offense falters in Northwestern's loss

March, 15, 2013
CHICAGO -- On what could have very well been the last game of Bill Carmody's Northwestern tenure, his Princeton offense flunked.

The Wildcats went scoreless for the first 7 1/2 minutes of their 73-59 loss to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday night.

For the Wildcats (13-19, 4-14 in Big Ten regular season), it was a fitting swan song to a lost season and for Carmody, a 13-year tenure that resulted in zero NCAA tournament appearances. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is expected to make a decision soon on Carmody's future. He has one year remaining on a two-year contract extension.

Northwestern missed its first seven shots and had three turnovers as Iowa went ahead 11-0. Nikola Cerina's layup put the Wildcats on the board with 12:32 left in the first half.

"I think at the beginning we weren't executing our offense very well," said senior guard Reggie Hearn, who led Northwestern with 19 points and 10 rebounds in his final game. "We had some guys out of position, we weren't communicating well about what the play was and our offense was kind of stagnant and I felt at times when we're not going on offense, it affects our defense. And we obviously weren't playing defense well initially and we just got in a big hole."

The Wildcats never led, but got their deficit down to 15-9 before Iowa answered with a 14-2 run.

The undermanned Northwestern team had a rough season after preseason expectations of finally making the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Northwestern lost two key players to injury, Drew Crawford in December and Jared Swopshire in February, and one to an academic suspension before the season in JerShon Cobb. The remaining players would've been more at home in the Ivy League.

"It was really difficult, especially for the senior class," senior guard Alex Marcotullio said. "But that's basketball. You're going to have to deal with injuries and it's really tough for us being our last year and having all these little fluke things happen to us. But it's no excuse."

Give the Wildcats credit for making it hard on Iowa in the second half. The Hawkeyes had a 36-22 lead at the half, but shot only 28.1 percent in the second half as Northwestern sank into a 2-3 zone.

The Wildcats cut their deficit to single digits a handful of times in the second half, getting as close as 50-43 with 8:27 left, but Iowa never let them make a serious run.

"We knew we had to give it our all," Marcotullio said. "We had one last run in us, maybe a couple. We just said to each other, are we going to leave it all out here or are we going to give up? And it seemed like we came together for a few minutes there and we brought it back to seven.

"And a couple missteps here and there and then they increased the lead. So that was kind of deflating. But I'm proud of the way we fought. Just a few things that we needed to clear up and we didn't take care of really early."

Rapid Reaction: Iowa 73, Northwestern 59

March, 14, 2013
Here's a quick look at Iowa's 73-59 Big Ten tournament win over Northwestern at the United Center on Thursday night.

How it happened: The undermanned Wildcats didn't have a chance. Northwestern went scoreless for the first 7½ minutes, going down 11-0, and never got closer than within six points after that. Northwestern shot 32 percent from the field in the first half and 36.7 percent for the game. The Wildcats kept it interesting in the second half, trimming the deficit to single digits several times, but couldn't save their season. Iowa plays Michigan State on Friday.

Player of the game: Reggie Hearn, a former walk-on, scored 19 points and added 10 rebounds and three blocks.

What it means: Northwestern coach Bill Carmody might be fired after 13 seasons, none of which resulted in an NCAA tournament berth. This team was promising before JerShon Cobb was suspended in September and Drew Crawford had shoulder surgery in December. The Wildcats finished 13-19 with a 4-14 record in the Big Ten regular season, their first losing season since 2007-08.

What's next: Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips likely fires Carmody and begins a "national search" for his replacement. Whether that hire works out is anybody's guess.

Groce happy for Illini seniors after upset

February, 8, 2013
Illinois coach John Groce said Friday he was happiest for his seniors after all they've been through following the Illini's upset of No. 1 Indiana on Thursday.

"I'm happy for the seniors not only what they battled here in the last week or month, but they've been through a lot of things during their careers," Groce said on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Chicago 1000. "The way those guys stepped up yesterday, the way they came together. I mentioned to my assistant with about three minutes to go, ‘My gosh, we played our tails off.'"

Illinois seniors Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have endured plenty of ups and downs throughout their careers. In the past two seasons, they've gone 23-3 in non-conference and been ranked as high as No. 10 in the country only to struggle in the Big Ten with a 9-19 mark. With Thursday's win, they improved to 3-7 in the Big Ten this season.

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Signing Day: NIU's Carey signs first class

February, 6, 2013
Northern Illinois may not see its Orange Bowl appearance pay large dividends in its 2013 recruiting class.

With only 13 players expected to sign on Wednesday, Huskies first-year coach Rod Carey may have to wait until 2014 to see more recruits headed his way. They will also have an indoor practice facility to show off to recruits beginning in the fall.

“I think they set themselves up nicely,” ESPN Midwest recruiting coordinator Jared Shanker said. “They’re in the news with the Orange Bowl appearance. They’ve had their best two-year run in school history. If you’re going to see improvements in Northern Illinois' recruiting, I think you’ll see that in the 2014 class.”

Top recruit: Milton (Ga.) wide receiver Malik Mitchell is the most highly-rated recruit for the Huskies. He has a three-star rating and a scout grade of 70. He chose Northern Illinois over MAC foes Toledo and Western Michigan.

“He’s a nice get for Northern Illinois,” Shanker said.

Aurora Christian trio: Northern Illinois has three Aurora Christian (Ill.) teammates in its 2013 class. Wide receiver Chad Beebe, running back Joel Bouagnon and safety Brandon Mayes led Aurora Christian to its second consecutive Class 3A state title in November. Beebe is the son of former NFL wide receiver Don Beebe.

Illinois state champs: The Huskies recruited a number of players from Illinois state championship programs. Aside from the Aurora Christian trio, Mount Carmel athlete Draco Smith won a Class 8A state title as a senior, and Prairie Ridge outside linebacker Sean Folliard won a Class 6A title as a junior.

Video: Parting Shot -- Strange Te'o story

January, 27, 2013

Jemele Hill wonders just how much stranger the Manti Te'o story can get.

Rapid Reaction: Illinois 74, Ohio State 55

January, 5, 2013

A quick look at No. 11 Illinois' 74-55 win over No. 8 Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

Overview: Illinois has proved twice now this season that it can bounce back from a loss. That wasn’t a trait of last season’s team, which had two three-game losing streaks and a six-game skid.

The Illini needed Saturday’s win after falling at Purdue in their Big Ten opener earlier in the week. An 0-2 start with upcoming games against Minnesota and at Wisconsin wouldn’t have been ideal for Illinois.

Illinois also showed it doesn’t have to rely on the 3-pointer to beat top teams, as it did against Butler and Gonzaga. The Illini were 8-of-27 from 3-point range Saturday, but they did the bulk of their damage inside. Illinois had five players score nine or more points. Brandon Paul led the way with 19 points.

On the other end, Ohio State couldn’t get much to fall. The Buckeyes were 20-of-60 from the field and 4-of-19 from 3-point range. Deshaun Thomas scored 24 of the team’s 55 points.

Turning point: Illinois came out motivated after losing to Purdue. The Illini used a 12-2 run early in the first half to go up 25-11. Ohio State was able to cut the lead to eight at one point, but the Illini wouldn’t give in any more than that. Illinois led by 20-plus points throughout most of the second half.

Key player: Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu appears to improve by the game. He scored a career-high 16 points on Saturday, and added eight rebounds, one block and one steal.

Key stat: Ohio State was averaging 10 turnovers heading into Saturday’s game. The Illini forced the Buckeyes into 10 turnovers in the first half alone. Ohio State finished with 16 turnovers.

Next game: Illinois will host its second consecutive top-10 team when No. 9 Minnesota comes to town Wednesday. Ohio State heads to Purdue on Tuesday.

Illini emphasizing rebounding vs. Ohio State

January, 4, 2013
[+] EnlargeBrandon Paul
Bradley Leeb/US PresswireBrandon Paul leads the Illini with 18.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.
Coach John Groce said Friday the Fighting Illini have to make rebounding more of an emphasis after their last three opponents beat them on the boards, leading to their only two losses this season.

Missouri first brought to light the Illini’s problem by outrebounding them 58-35, including 22-14 on the offensive glass, in an Illinois loss on Dec. 22. The Tigers had 15 second-chance points in the 82-73 win.

Against Auburn on Dec. 29, the Illini were outrebounded 39-31 overall and 14-9 offensively in an 81-79 win. Auburn had 24 second-chance points.

In Wednesday’s game against Purdue, Illinois was outrebounded 45-35 overall and 17-13 offensively in another loss. The Boilermakers had 15 second-chance points in the 68-61 win.

“I think just continue to make it more of an emphasis and getting everybody involved,” Groce said on Friday. “I think we’re a team that has to gang-rebound it. We are. All five guys have to be involved in it.

“I think at times we’ve done a decent job of doing that, and other times as I’ve watched I don’t think we’ve done a very good job at doing that. We got to be more consistent in that area.”

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Three things we've learned about Illinois

January, 2, 2013
Here are three things we’ve learned about Illinois during its non-conference schedule:

1. Illinois is an NCAA tournament team: The Illini and first-year coach John Groce have been one of the nation’s biggest surprises during the non-conference season and have proven they’re a NCAA tournament team. They’ve had their share of doubters from the season’s start after last season’s struggles, a change in coaches and the early departure of Meyers Leonard, but there shouldn’t be too many skeptics remaining. Illinois went 13-1 in its non-conference slate with quality wins over Butler and Gonzaga. Its only loss was a narrow one to Missouri in St. Louis. The Illini are currently at No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 8 in ESPN’s InsideRPI rankings. Illinois isn’t expected to run the table in the Big Ten or probably win the conference title, but it has shown it has the capability to be in the conference’s top half. If Illinois can finish .500 or better in a tough Big Ten, the Illini should be a lock for the tournament. The consistency of sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams, who scored 27 points against Auburn, and senior shooting guard D.J. Richardson, who is 4-of-22 from 3-point range in the last four games, could be the key to the conference season.

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Abrams' new mindset leads to career day

December, 29, 2012
CHICAGO -- Something changed in Illinois sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams from the time he went home for Christmas to when he returned to campus this week.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTracy Abrams had a career-high 27 points against Auburn. Perhaps more impressive: He turned the ball over just once.
In the few days of practice leading up to Saturday’s game against Auburn, Illinois coach John Groce began to see Abrams play with a different speed and mentality than he ever did.

“Have you ever read the book ‘112 degrees’?” Groce asked Saturday. “It’s when water boils. All of a sudden two days ago, it started boiling for him.”

What the Illini had seen the past few days, Abrams displayed to the public in the Illini’s 81-79 win over Auburn at the United Center. Playing fast and determined, Abrams had a career-high 27 points to go along with eight rebounds, five assists, one turnover and four steals in 35 minutes.

Abrams didn’t have those numbers in mind coming into the game, but he did tell himself and others he was going to take it to Auburn from the tip.

“He came out with the mindset, ‘I’m going to attack,’” Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu said. “He even told me before the game he was going to attack and come out aggressive. He did a great job.”

Abrams didn’t provide an explanation for why his game changed. It was just something he felt he and the team needed.

“I was just pushing the ball more than I think I did any other game this season,” said Abrams, a Chicago native. “We’ve been pushing the ball a lot in practice, and I wanted to start the game off like that. I just took what they gave me, just going to the hole.”

The aggressive nature delighted Groce, but he was even more pleased with Abrams’ decision-making. He drove when Auburn gave him a lane. He found teammates when they were open. He didn’t take risks.

Abrams had committed at least three turnovers in eight of Illinois’ first 13 games and was averaging 2.9 turnovers.

“Five assists, one (turnover) playing 35 minutes against a team that’s top 50 in the country in forcing turnovers, I thought he did an excellent job taking care of the ball,” Groce said. “I think it’s more finding that balance between attacking when it’s there for yourself and attacking and seeing what they give you and how you can make guys better. I thought the last 2-3 days of practice and including today he’s done that at the highest level all season.”

Finding that balance between looking for himself to score and creating opportunities for others has been a focus for Abrams when working with Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker.

“That’s what he has to do,” Walker said. “That’s something all point guards in American struggle with until they figure it out. That’s important to his development moving forward this year and the next few years.”

While Abrams has room to grow in that area, his toughness and determination are already where Groce wants them to be. That showed with the game on the line on Saturday.

After Auburn pulled within one point with 4:28 remaining, Abrams did all he could to make sure Illinois and its seniors won in Chicago for the first time in four years. In the final four minutes, Abrams scored seven points, hit 7 of 8 free throws, grabbed three rebounds and had one steal.

“How about a couple of those (rebounds) he dug out late?” Groce said. “He’s in there battling with trees. He’s a tough dude. He is. He’s a tough dude. He’s a tough dude. He’s working on getting better at some things, but when you coach him, you never ever question that kid’s toughness. I mean he’s a tough dude.”

Rapid Reaction: Illinois 81, Auburn 79

December, 29, 2012
CHICAGO -- A quick look at No. 12 Illinois’ 81-79 win over Auburn at the United Center on Saturday.

Overview: Playing in Chicago hadn’t been kind to Illinois in recent years. The Illini had been knocked off the last three times they held their annual game in Chicago.

Although it wasn’t as easy as the Illini hoped, they did finally reverse their fortune in the Windy City on Saturday.

Illinois looked as if it might put Auburn away when it extended its lead to double digits in the second half, but the Tigers continued to hang around and pulled within a point with 4:25 left.

The Illini have often relied on the 3-pointer this season, but they moved away from that on Saturday. They hit just four 3-pointers in the win and did most of their damage getting to the rim and with mid-range jumpers. Nine players scored for the Illini.

Auburn kept itself in the game with the 3-pointer. The Tigers were 11-of-23 from 3-point range. Frankie Sullivan scored a team-high 21 points.

Turning point: Illinois allowed Auburn to get within 68-67 with just over four minutes remaining. From there, Illinois surged forward again. The Illini closed out the game on a 13-9 run, but a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Auburn made the score appear closer.

Key player: Illinois sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams didn’t score in last year’s game at the United Center. He made up for it against Auburn. He scored a career-high 27 points and added eight rebounds, five assists and four steals.

Key stat: Illinois was 27 of 40 from the free-throw line. Auburn was 10 of 16.

Next game: Illinois finished its non-conference schedule with a 13-1 mark. The Illini open the Big Ten season by traveling to Purdue on Wednesday. Auburn still has one more non-conference game remaining and will host Florida State on Wednesday.

Illini hope to regain Chicago edge

December, 28, 2012
[+] EnlargeSam Maniscalco
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLast year's loss to UNLV at the United Center was the beginning of a skid for Illinois that resulted in Bruce Weber getting fired.
Chicago is important to the Illinois basketball program.

For one, the city and its surrounding areas are full of basketball talent. A bulk of the state's top players and even some of the nation's elite ones come from Chicago. Recruiting there is vital to the program's health. Seven players on the current roster are from the Chicagoland area.

Secondly, Chicago is home to thousands of Illini alumni. As much as Northwestern wants to call itself Chicago's Big Ten team, Illinois' alumni trump the Wildcats and all of the other Big Ten schools in the area.

Those two reasons have brought the Illini to Chicago to host an annual game dating back to 1994. It's a way of attracting recruits and thanking their fans. And with 32 wins in 43 appearances when visiting Chicago, the Illini have often been successful in their mission.

Lately, though, the game hasn't exactly worked out that way. The Illini have been beaten in their three last trips to Chicago, and two of those defeats -- an upset by UIC and a 16-points loss to UNLV -- had recruits and fans leaving unimpressed.

For Illinois' seniors, Saturday's game against Auburn is their last chance to win at the United Center and turn the annual Chicago game back in the program's favor.

"I have no clue (why we've struggled in Chicago,)" Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson said on Thursday. "It's a new year."

Richardson has been on the court for every one of the Illini's last three losses in Chicago.

Against Gonzaga on Jan. 2, 2010, Richardson witnessed Illinois rally from a 21-point first-half deficit to take an eight-point lead in the second half and finally fall 85-83 in overtime. He had six points in 15 minutes as a freshman.

Against UIC on Dec. 18, 2010, the Illini were riding a seven-game winning streak and came in ranked No. 14. On the other hand, the Flames had a first-year coach in Howard Moore and were under .500. None of that mattered as the Illini surrendered an eight-point second-half lead and lost 57-54.

"That was bad," said Richardson, who had 13 points in the loss. "That was terrible. That's all I can say."

Against UNLV on Dec. 17, 2011, the Illini, who were ranked No. 19, suffered another tough loss. The Rebels pulled away from Illinois late in the first half and kept it that way in the second half to close out with a 64-48 win.

"It was tough," said Richardson, who with a game-high 19 points was only the Illini player in double figures. "I don't want to count myself out of last year's game. As a team, we didn't play great. We didn't play good enough for us to win."

Not only have the Chicago losses been difficult to swallow for Illinois, they've also led to disappointing second-half finishes. After the Gonzaga loss, Illinois went 12-11 the rest of the year. After UIC, it went 10-13. After UNLV, it went 7-15. The Illini have been to the NCAA tournament once in the last three seasons.

With Illinois off to a 12-1 start this season, the Illini are optimistic that trend will change. A win over Auburn in Chicago could just springboard the Illini into the Big Ten season and set up another NCAA bid.

"That's what we're looking for," Richardson said. "Looking to go into this game, just having a refreshed start. It's going to be the second semester for school, second part of the season, just end the non-conference part on a good note. Try to go 13-1 in non-conference, go into the Big Ten, that's a whole season and get focused for that."

Illinois first-year coach John Groce understands what Chicago means to the program and said this week he planned to continue the tradition of the Chicago game.

"We're excited to go to Chicago," Groce said. "It's a huge area for us not only for alumni, but for a recruiting standpoint. We're really excited to have an opportunity to play up there. I know our guys are looking forward to it."

Recruits impressed by Illini's early success

December, 28, 2012
John GroceAP Photo/Jeff RobersonIllinois' John Groce is capturing the attention of recruits with the Illini's success.
Being Illinois' head coach got John Groce in most doors when he was first hired and began recruiting the Chicago area.

Groce's sales pitch then was a mixture of the past along with predicting the future. He spoke of what he had done at Ohio and what he thought he could with Illinois. Some recruits knew of Ohio because of Chicago product D.J. Cooper and its NCAA tournament appearances, but not everyone was familiar with the Bobcats.

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Saturday, 8/30
Thursday, 8/28
Friday, 8/29
Sunday, 8/31