Illinois may have been bounced from the 2013 Big Ten Tournament after getting crushed by the Indiana Hoosiers in Chicago on Friday, but the Fighting Illini aren't done dancing just yet.
John Groce's squad finished the season 22-12 and managed to win eight games in the loaded Big Ten this year. Illinois began the season 12-0 and only had one bad loss at home to Northwestern in January. On top of that, Illinois earned big-time victories over Gonzaga (on the road), Ohio State and Indiana.
With Illinois likely headed to the Big Dance this March, we'll highlight some key X-factors for Illini success.
Junior guard Joseph Bertrand is the only Fighting Illini player this season that's shooting at least 50 percent from the field. The 6'6" Sterling, Ill. native is averaging 7.5 points in roughly 23 minutes per game this season, but he is taking slightly fewer than six shots from the field per contest. Beyond his efficiency, though, he is a phenomenal rebounding guard, averaging 4.3 boards per outing.
Bertrand should also shine at the foul line this March, where he is one of only four Illinois players shooting better than 80 percent.
With senior guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson receiving most of the attention because of their scoring prowess, Bertrand will likely continue to fly under the radar as Illinois gets set to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu doesn't score a ton of points for the Fighting Illini, but his presence on the glass will be key for Illinois in the NCAA tournament this March. Egwu is averaging a team-leading 4.6 rebounds per game this season.
In addition to his rebounding prowess, the 6'11" Egwu's ability to alter shots on the defensive end is huge for the Illini. He leads all Illinois players with 1.3 blocked shots per game this season.
If he's not swatting shots inside the paint then he's at least forcing tough shots and anchoring the Illinois defense.
Illinois fans should also watch for Egwu to foul plenty this March. He's averaging 3.2 fouls per game this year, which ranks second in the Big Ten Conference behind Nebraska's Brandon Ubel.
His ability to play tough, physical defense will be key.
Like Egwu, forward Tyler Griffey isn't going to give Illinois a whole lot of production in terms of scoring, but so long as the 6'9" senior is providing leadership during his 20 or so minutes on the floor, he'll play a vital role in the Illini's chances of advancing in the NCAA tournament.
Griffey is one of four seniors on Illinois' roster this season, but, along with Sam McLaurin, he is one of the forgotten seniors because of his low scoring output.
Griffey is averaging just 7.1 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting from the field in 2012-13, but he does pose a serious threat from outside the arc, where he's poured in 37 three-pointers this year. That mark ranks third most among all Illinois players.
The experience factor is huge come tournament time as well—Griffey, like teammates Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, has just that having made it to the third round of the Big Dance in 2011.
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