CHAMPAIGN — When first-year Illinois coach John Groce looked over to the section of the Assembly Hall where the families of the coaching staff sit, the Danville, Ind., native saw a lot of familiar faces.
“We had people here today, my wife (Allison) doesn’t even tell me who’s here, looked like half the town of Danville out there when the game was over,” Groce said.
Groce’s family filled a few extra seats at the Assembly Hall and were treated to his first win as a head coach in the Big Ten with Illinois’ 74-55 win against Ohio State.
“It’s pretty special,” Groce said of his first conference win. “I pinch myself every day. My window looks out at the baseball field and you see the University of Illinois on the scoreboard and I’m a lucky guy.”
Groce is no stranger to the Big Ten, having grown up just outside Indianapolis. The 41-year-old also spent four seasons as an assistant coach to Thad Matta at Ohio State.
Saturday was the first time the old friends went head-to-head in a game after spending a total of eight seasons together at Butler and Xavier prior to the stint at Ohio State.
The two spoke briefly before the game and again real quick after the game in the handshake line.
“He’s done a tremendous job,” Matta said. “He’s got these guys playing at a high level. When he took the job I said, ‘You just walked into a heck of a situation. You’ve got players and they’ve been coached.’ He’s done a tremendous job of putting his stamp on it.”
Across the country, that Illinois is ranked in the Top 15 is a surprise. Matta knew better than to count out the Illini, especially with Groce at the controls.
“We were looking saying, ‘No, they’re going to be a little better than that.’ I think everyone in the Big Ten knew that,” the Hoopeston native said.
The first Big Ten win was special for Groce. But beating Ohio State and Matta provided no extra satisfaction.
“You’ve got 18 games. I’ve been telling these guys from Day 1, you don’t get double because you beat somebody. It’s not like, ‘Hey, you lost so that counts twice,’ ” Groce said. “It doesn’t go that way. Every game counts the same.”
How did Illinois blow the doors off the Buckeyes and open up a lead as large as 25? The Illini forced 16 Ohio State turnovers, 11 of which came in the first half. That led to easy buckets, particularly in the first 20 minutes where Illinois shot 14 for 19 inside the three-point line and scored 16 of their 37 points off turnovers against the Buckeyes, who came in averaging 10.3 miscues per game.
“You’re playing a great basketball team and we don’t turn the ball over. That was probably the biggest thing that we felt like we weren’t even getting shots up because of our turnovers,” Matta said.
Illinois was aware of how well Ohio State takes care of the basketball and didn’t think it had the manpower to cause so many mistakes.
D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams led the Illini charge with three steals apiece.
“I said before the game they’re going to take care of the ball, it’s what his teams always do, we can’t count on that as something that allows us to be competitive or win the game,” Groce said. “They settled down at the half, that’s pretty typical. We were fortunate.”
Two weeks after scoring a career-high 12 points in the loss to Missouri, sophomore Nnanna Egwu set another career high for points, netting 16 against the Buckeyes.
The 6-foot-11 center made 7 of 10 shots and pulled down eight rebounds.
“The guards did a great job of setting me up, bringing down the big man to help,” Egwu said. “I just popped open and it was open. The guards did a good job of finding me and giving me a good pass.”
Groce has maintained since he arrived at Illinois in March that Egwu would only continue to get better the more he played. He started playing organized basketball as a freshman in high school at Chicago’s St. Ignatius.
“He’s great, played great. He’s good at both ends. He does some things on the defensive end I don’t think people give him credit for. Tonight, he made shots, helped us on the glass. He continues to get better. If there’s ever a kid that deserves to continue to get better, it’s him. He cares about Illinois, he cares about winning,” Groce said. “We love him. We’ve just got to keep working with him and keep getting him better because he’ll do anything you ask him to do.”
He caught Matta’s eye, too.
“He really, really played well,” Matta said. “We had seen that he could shoot it and he started knocking down 17-footers, it was like ‘Geez, this is kind of their day.’ We seem to bring the best out of guys.”
A big question coming into the game for Illinois was who was going to guard preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas. The 6-foot-7 forward entered the game averaging a Big Ten-best 19.9 points per game.
It was a group effort. Brandon Paul started on him. Joseph Bertrand, Sam McLaurin and a few other Illini also shared time on the junior. He managed 24 points — but worked for all 24.
“We usually do a good job of contesting shots. We wanted to limit their shooters,” Paul said. “Obviously Deshaun had a pretty good game. We wanted them to take a lot of shots and he took 21 to get 24 points, so that was basically our game plan.”
After being outrebounded 142-101 the last three games, Illinois made a point to shore up its rebounding the last few days at practice.
It paid off as the Illini outrebounded the Buckeyes 40-30. Each team corralled nine offensive rebounds.
“Our guys battled, they battled. Probably did a better job of blocking out, had a better disposition of when the shot went up,” Groce said. “These guys will do about anything you ask them to do. Obviously we found the right button the last couple days to emphasize it and they embraced it. That’s on me, I’ve got to figure that out.”
Egwu led the way with eight boards. Paul had seven, Abrams had six and Bertrand have five rebounds.
“The last couple days, our assistants did a good job,” Groce said. “They were charting it and tracking it. These guys will tell you it was on spotlight the last couple days in practice and I thought it helped.”
In the five games leading up to Saturday, Richardson had been plagued by a shooting slump. The senior was 5 for 28 from behind the three-point line in those five games.
He broke out Saturday, making 3 of 9. Richardson has now made a three-pointer in a career-best 22 straight games.
Groce was tired of hearing about the slump when asked Saturday.
“I was happy for him. He’s a guy, a lot like Nnanna, he loves playing for the state school, he loves Illinois. It means something to him that he gets to put that uniform on. He’s a great teammate,” Groce said. “I’ll be honest, I’m tired of people making a big deal out about his deal. He’s going to keep shooting because I’m going to tell him to keep shooting. He defends, plays the other team’s best guy almost every night, hardly anyone talks about that. He rebounds; it’s not like he’s an above-the-rim athlete. He screens, dives on loose balls and he plays to win, and I’m not trading him. I love that kid.”
Former Illinois coach Lou Henson was on hand for the second time this season. Henson was with a group of about 150 Orange Krush alumni who were in town for a reunion.
Henson and his wife Mary started the student group in their living room in the 1970s. The two original members, Alan Solow and Peter Korst, were on hand.
When the Krush became a charitable foundation in 1998, Alex Marks was a member of the board. He was also on hand, as was Mike Raycraft, the UI professor and former DIA staffer who created the concept of the foundation, which has raised $2.3 million.
Bruce Douglas, who holds the Illinois career records for steals (324) and assists (765), attended Saturday’s game with his son Bryce, a 6-foot-2, 315-pounder from Plainfield Central who will play defensive tackle at Illinois next fall.
“It’s exciting, it’s a great place to go to school,” Dad said. “I was telling him how great of a place with resources and facilities this is. But what makes this great is the people. He’ll be able to experience that and I’m most excited about that.”
Bruce Douglas is pleased with the progress the Illinois program has made under Groce.
“The guys are really playing well and there’s a confidence and camaraderie about them,” he said. “It’s exciting for me to come out and see them do Ohio State the way they did them today. They’re back on the map, I think.”
Champaign native and former Illinois guard Trent Meacham was especially happy with Saturday’s win. Meacham, who is playing professionally in France, is a teammate of former Ohio State star David Lighty.
“I’ll have bragging rights on him for a little while,” said Meacham, who was at the Assembly Hall on Saturday.
Meacham initially decided to retire from basketball but jumped at an opportunity to return to the game this season.
“When you realize that door’s open, you have a short time as an athlete to capitalize on playing,” he said. “It was good for me to get away for a little bit to get refreshed.”
Illinois director of basketball operations Mark Morris proposed to his girlfriend of more than two years, Erin Ebelhar, on Friday night. She accepted.
The two met at Murray State, where they each earned bachelor’s degrees. Ebelhar moved to Champaign when Morris got the job at Illinois and works as a labor and delivery nurse at Carle.
The couple is planning an August wedding.
“It’s an exciting time for us,” Morris said.