Over the years, we’ve seen a number of very talented Illini teams play hard against other high-level opponents, but seemingly check-out against less prestigious foes, and in some cases even lose those games as a result. The opposite occurred against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Monday night, as the Illini thoroughly dominated a less-talented conference opponent on the road virtually from start to finish.
Brad Underwood last used the term “culture win” in the wake of last year's hard-fought and ugly victory over the Michigan State Spartans at home. Although the circumstances are different, that same culture pushed the Illini to not let up against an inferior opponent on the road this year.
A positive culture pushes players to play up to their abilities, rather than down to that of their opponents. As tempting as it would have been for the starters like Matthew Mayer and Sencire Harris to either try to pad their stats or play the game at less than 100% on Monday night, they instead turned in high-effort and team-focused plays like these.
With a rivalry match against the Indiana Hoosiers coming up in Champaign, it would’ve been understandable for Illinois to look past the Gophers on the road. But that clearly didn’t happen.
Aside from the effort that the starters put into this game, another sign of this Illini team’s strong culture was the solid play of reserve players like Brandon Lieb. Despite seeing extremely limited minutes thus far in his career, Lieb slotted into the rotation almost seamlessly and was pivotal in giving the Illini a lead going into halftime.
Ty Rodgers has been playing great basketball off the bench for Illinois in recent games, and he almost earned a double-double against the Gophers with 8 points and 8 rebounds.
Other players coming off the bench also consistently made the high-effort plays that ensured this game ended up a laugher by the end.
Culture is critical to winning consistently in college basketball. Teams that take nights off against bad opponents aren’t simply able to turn it on again against good teams.
So it was great to see that this team not only didn’t let off the gas in Minneapolis, but their culture helped them to find another gear and elevate their potential.