If there’s one thing John Groce knows about the Big Ten Conference basketball season that begins next week, it’s that close games will be the rule rather than the exception.

Even though the University of Illinois was just 5-13 in league play last year, six losses were by single digits and two were decided in overtime. Make more plays in the final four minutes and any of those losses could have flipped the other direction.

So while Illinois made plenty of mistakes in its Braggin’ Rights game Wednesday with Missouri, enough late plays went the Illini’s way to ensure a 75-66 victory. Groce finds that encouraging.

The win was Illinois’ sixth in a row and it finishes the nonconference season 10-3. If Illinois could win 10 of its 18 Big Ten games, a 20-win season is likely enough to return the Illini to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

That’s really what this season is about. If you don’t believe it, ask the players. They’re all looking at that as the target.

Illinois made plenty of mistakes against Mizzou. Too many fouls and lately the offense can get stagnant against any zone defense. Ballhandling, especially in the first half, was sloppy.

Tracy Abrams played his worst game of the season and when he fouled out with 6:36 to go, he walked slowly to the bench shaking his head. He couldn’t believe his final Braggin’ Rights game would end like this.

“Abrams is our voice and he fouled out — according to him — for the first time in his life including Biddy Ball and high school,” Groce said.

That made backup guard Jaylon Tate more valuable. He’ll always be a polarizing figure because of his inability to shoot, but in fairness, it should be noted Tate finished with six assists and just one turnover in 30 minutes.

With health and depth a much greater asset than a year ago, Illinois has been able to turn to its bench to help win close games.

Michael Finke has been playing better and his big 3-pointer and seven rebounds contributed to Illinois’ better performance down the stretch.

Maverick Morgan came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 11 rebounds. He summoned his inner Robert Archibald and Lucas Johnson when he made the play of the game, fighting for a left-handed rebound when three Missouri players were chasing the same ball.

Archibald, of course, is the one-time Illini big man who developed into a man-sized rebounder under Bill Self. Johnson was the scrappy forward who had a knack for ending up in the middle of any mid-game skirmish.

When Morgan grabbed that rebound, then went beak-to-beak with both Terrance Phillips and Kevin Puryear from Missouri on the play that fired up every orange and blue soul in Scottrade Center, longtime Illini fans jumped Morgan way up on their respect meter.

That kind of late-game play is what Illinois will need once Big Ten action begins.

Much will be learned in the next 10 days. At Maryland, Illinois will be playing a good but not great Terrapin team led by all-conference point guard Melo Trimble.

Then at home on New Year’s Day, Illinois will host a good but not great Ohio State team that owns six straight victories over the Illini.

Play competitively at Maryland — heck, maybe steal one there — then hold home court against the Buckeyes and Illinois’ reversal from that 3-game skid during Thanksgiving week will have some teeth.

Remember, there are only three Big Ten teams ranked among the Top 25. Wisconsin is No. 14, Purdue No 15, Indiana No. 16. Illinois plays each of them just once.

The six-game winning streak shows that Illinois has some fight, and that wasn’t always a certainty last season. Showing it in Big Ten play is how this team will be judged.

Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois athletics for Lee News Service. Contact him at mark.tupper@lee.net


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