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That basketball team wearing the orange jerseys Wednesday night?

You know, the one that beat Michigan State 73-70 in the best atmosphere the State Farm Center has seen since they spent $170 million sprucing up the place.

Who were those guys?

That is definitely not the same University of Illinois team that blew a 10-point lead in the final three minutes and lost in this very same building to Winthrop. That was back in November when Illinois’ defense routinely opened a welcoming path to the basket whenever an opponent needed an easy score.

That is not the same team that lost by 32 points on Thanksgiving Day to West Virginia. Nor is it the same group that took a 25-point beating in the Big Ten opener at Maryland. Nor is it the same team that trailed 15-0 before realizing the game was over before they’d scored a point at Indiana.

It’s not even the same team that lost at home to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State in a period of 12 days less than three weeks ago.

An amazing and unpredictable transformation has dramatically changed the mindset, the attitude and surely the confidence level of a team that was on the ropes until four things happened almost simultaneously.

Here’s what pulled Illinois from the ash pile:

1) The offense was handed to point guard Te’Jon Lucas. Head coach John Groce was reluctant to push the freshman from Milwaukee into the starting lineup but when he did on Jan. 25 in a victory over Iowa, many things began to change.

The ball started moving. There was less standing and dribbling, a nagging issue with other point guards. And Lucas started to cement the team’s new tough-minded disposition on defense.

Toughness, it turns out, may be Lucas’ greatest asset. He’s 18 years old and he’s completely unafraid.

A key play late in Wednesday’s game may have gone unnoticed. With Illinois on top 72-70, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges drove hard to the basket in the final seconds. But the ball appeared to pop out of his hands and he pushed a wild shot toward the basket that was rebounded by Illinois’ Kipper Nichols.

After the game, neither Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan nor Tracy Abrams knew just how Bridges lost control of the ball. But a review of the tape shows it was Lucas, guarding another player, who used a flick of his hand to knock the ball from Bridges’ grasp.

It was a potential game-saver.

2) Groce shortened the rotation. For a long while, one of Groce’s favorite sayings was "strength in numbers." He was proud to have a roster he felt gave him multiple options and early in Big Ten play he was routinely using a rotation of 10 or 11 players.

Illinois got hot once he realized he had eight truly reliable players and barring foul trouble, he had enough options within that group.

In addition to recent starters Hill, Leron Black, Morgan, Lucas and Abrams, he trimmed his bench to just Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Kipper Nichols.

“That’s been good for us, obviously,” Groce said. “Our team has shaped up differently than we thought it would. We’ve had to adapt, tinker and push buttons and now we’ve gotten to the point where we’re comfortable.”

As it has turned out, less is more.

3) Addition by subtraction. Groce will never disparage his own players, but the truth is, keeping guard Jaylon Tate and center Mike Thorne Jr. on the bench has made Illinois a better team.

They can still be called on if there’s foul trouble and that was the case when Tate played seven minutes Feb. 18 in a victory at Iowa. But Tate has not played at all in five of the last six games and the team is better rotating just three guards.

Groce had high hopes for Thorne, but the big man with knee issues could never get going and he has not played in seven of the last eight games.

4) Desperation can be a great motivator. It’s probably no coincidence Illinois got rolling once confronted with the realization that its postseason dreams and the coach’s future were truly in jeopardy.

After losing at home to Penn State on Feb. 11, the season looked lost. At that point, Illinois was 14-12 and 4-9 in the conference. Anyone talking about the NCAA Tournament would have been placed in a straight jacket.

It was Hill who talked openly about not wanting to be the very good player whose unfortunate legacy was going four years without a whiff of The Big Dance. Fellow seniors like Abrams and Morgan heard the clock ticking, too. And Groce, who tries to tune out the outside noise, knows which way the wind is blowing.

Faced with that do-it-now-or-else scenario, Illinois has rattled off four straight victories, two of which are against top 50 teams (Northwestern and Michigan State).

A victory Saturday against last-place Rutgers would make it five straight against Big Ten opponents, something Illinois hasn't done since February 2010.

Even with that, there’s likely still work to be done to land one of the 68 NCAA Tournament spots. The Big Ten Tournament, which begins next Wednesday, will provide that opportunity.

Groce swears he hasn’t changed much and Abrams agrees.

“He’s been the same person all year,” Abrams said. “Coach Groce is energetic and passionate about what he does. There’s a lot that comes with that. He’s done a great job of keeping us on task.”

Hill admits that even to him, the turnaround is somewhat perplexing.

“We just figured it out,” he said. “We trust our defense. We’re making it more personal if a team scores on us. Offensively, we’re just sharing the ball. We’re more in sync.

“I can’t explain it. I was talking to Tracy about it in practice. It just feels different.”

Thanks to a number of changes that clicked not a moment too soon, it’s a different team indeed.

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Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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