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No distractions, familiar court work in favor of Illinois at Big Ten tournament

Illinois guard D.J. Richardsright celebrates with guard Tracy Abrams during second half an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn Chicago

Illinois guard D.J. Richardson, right, celebrates with guard Tracy Abrams during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Chicago, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012. Illinois won 81-79. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: April 14, 2013 6:43AM



Unlike last year, when it was under the gun, Illinois enters this year’s Big Ten tournament under the radar.

There’s no melodrama about the coach (Bruce Weber) being fired, no speculation about the budding superstar (Meyers Leonard) jumping to the NBA.

When the No. 8 Illini open the Big Ten tournament at the United Center against No. 9 Minnesota at 11 a.m. Thursday, there will be no distractions. Just basketball.

‘‘Fans and media want to talk about that, but we never let distractions affect our game,’’ Brandon Paul said.

That certainly has been true this season. After a 2-7 Big Ten start, Illinois bounced back with five straight wins. Even though it has lost three of its last four, those losses came at Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State, who were a combined 49-5 at home this season.

‘‘I feel really good about this team,’’ sophomore Myke Henry said. ‘‘We’ve been through a lot.’’

That’s putting it mildly. That’s one of several things the Illini have going for them this March.

They rely a lot on seniors: Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin. Their coach, John Groce, has an impressive March résumé, with wins as a No. 13 and a No. 14 NCAA seed at Ohio.

They won three days in a row to capture the Maui Invitational. And after those nasty trips to Ann Arbor, Iowa City and Columbus, the UC could feel like a home game for the Illini. Not only should they have a decent rooting section. They’re also the only Big Ten team that has played lately at the Madhouse on Madison, which is hosting the conference tournament for the first time since 2007.

‘‘I hope that’s the case; we could feed off that energy,’’ sophomore Tracy Abrams said. ‘‘We’re definitely familiar with the building. That gives us an advantage with those rims.’’

In this setting, where there are no shootaround opportunities, that is an edge.

On the other hand, Illinois also has issues to overcome. Groce’s system likes ballhandlers, and that’s not an Illini strength. Also, when Illinois won 57-53 at Minnesota on Feb. 10, the Gophers were without 6-7 senior Rodney Williams (shoulder), who’s inconsistent but dangerous.

Groce was optimistic Tuesday that Joseph Bertrand, who sat out at Ohio State on Sunday with a shoulder injury, will play. The redshirt junior practiced Monday and ‘‘was ahead of where we anticipated, which is good.’’

With wins over likely No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Indiana, plus a good win against Butler, Illinois has three excellent victories. It also can struggle mightily to make shots, and its frontline can be wobbly.

In other words, Illinois also could be back in Champaign for dinner.

Groce believes his team is hungry, though. Which is a good sign.

‘‘I like what we’ve done; I like where we’re at,’’ he said.

‘‘Our guys have shown some toughness at times. I’d like it to be more consistent, but what coach wouldn’t? We’re going to continue to beat that drum all the way to the end.’’



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