CHAMPAIGN — Last year, the Illinois program was as low as it has been in some time. The Illini had just been bounced from the Big Ten tournament by Iowa and Bruce Weber would lose his job the next day after a 17-15 campaign.
The momentum, on the court and in recruiting, had been lost.
In John Groce’s first year, the excitement is back. Illinois already has won 21 games entering Sunday’s season finale at No. 14 Ohio State. Fans appear to be on board, too, as Illinois sold out six home games after playing in front of a full house once last season.
“People have been very responsive from Day 1. There’s a lot of energy and passion surrounding the program right now, and a lot of that is because of our great fans, great alums and the great community we live in here,” Groce said. “People care about it at such a high level and have been responsive to our group because of how resilient they’ve been. They’ve been able to overcome some things, which people appreciate that. This is a blue-collar area of the country, this is a blue-collar town, and I think people appreciate how our guys have handled themselves and how they’ve fought.”
With all that comes opportunities in recruiting, and Illinois’ first-year coach thinks his program is on the right track in that regard.
“Has that opened some doors? I think it certainly helps,” Groce said. “It certainly doesn’t hurt anything.”
The Illini coaching staff has built a presence in the Chicago area, which many felt should be a top priority. Assistant coach Paris Parham was in the Chicago area this week for a Class 4A sectional semifinal Thursday between Curie, featuring 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cliff Alexander, and Whitney Young, which has 6-9, 270-pound Jahlil Okafor. Parham was in attendance for Friday’s final between Simeon — which features Illinois signees Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn — and Young.
The players have taken an active role in recruiting when the opportunity presents itself.
“It helps to show we’ve got a pretty good coach here to help us try to win games,” Tracy Abrams said. “Everybody wants to win; it just shows Coach knows what he’s doing. I just try to tell those guys, ‘Look, if you want to win, this is the place to be.’ ”
When Illinois beat Ohio State by 19 points in the second game of the Big Ten season for both teams, panic resonated from the Buckeyes’ fan base. Ohio State dropped to 0-3 against ranked teams after the Jan. 5 loss at the Assembly Hall, and outside of Deshaun Thomas, no other player had emerged as a consistent offensive threat.
Two months later, Thad Matta’s club appears to have it figured out entering Sunday’s season finale against the Illini. The 14th-ranked Buckeyes, who knocked off second-ranked Indiana on Tuesday, have a chance to share the conference championship with a win against the Illini and some help.
“I think they’re playing really well right now. Obviously, they’re on a little bit of a roll here lately,” Groce said. “Their defense has been tremendous, and as you look at the numbers, real consistent throughout the year. I think they’ve defended really well. At one point in time, Thomas was the leading scorer in the league and super talented and does a lot of things for them offensively, but you could see some other guys developing as well. (Aaron) Craft was good the other night against Indiana. Sam Thompson’s gotten better. Lenzelle Smith’s had some big games. Shannon Scott’s getting better. Amir Williams affects field goal percentage; he’s got great size and is really good defensively. (Evan) Ravenel does good things for them. I just think they’ve continued to improve. (LaQuinton) Ross has improved. They just keep getting better, and that’s a big reason why they’re playing well now.”
Ohio State’s improvement since the first time it met Illinois isn’t a surprise to Groce, who spent eight years on Matta’s staffs at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. He’s seen firsthand how the Hoopeston native molds his teams as seasons progress.
“That’s what coaches do, and he’s really good at it. I had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. He’s always done a good job of pushing the right buttons and getting to his guys, and they’ve done a good job of playing well late, and they’re doing that now,” Groce said. “To say I’m not surprised would be an understatement.”
Sunday’s game will have some Big Ten tournament seeding implications for Illinois, which can be seeded as high as sixth and as low as eighth for the tournament.
If Iowa loses today at home against Nebraska and Minnesota loses today at Purdue, Illinois would get the No. 6 seed with a win. If the Illini, Hawkeyes and Gophers all win, Illinois will be the No. 8 seed. The Illini would be the 8 seed if they lose, Iowa loses and Minnesota loses.
With a win at Ohio State, the Illini would be the seventh seed if Iowa wins and Minnesota loses.
The Big Ten tournament begins Thursday at Chicago’s United Center.
“We just know we have to win a game. That’s all we can control,” Tyler Griffey said.
After taking Wednesday off following Tuesday’s loss at Iowa, the Illini got back to work Thursday with a practice Groce categorized as “much more physical than normal in March.”
The loss didn’t sit well with the coaching staff, particularly on the offensive end as Illinois shot a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor in dropping to 8-9 in Big Ten play.
“On the offensive end I didn’t think we were very tough on Tuesday night and didn’t execute as well as we needed to execute,” Groce said. “Iowa deserves some credit for that. Some of the stuff was on us, and we need to be tougher.”
It was the third time this season the Illini shot 35 percent or worse. Groce said the poor shooting isn’t unique to his team, noting that Wisconsin shot 29.4 percent in a loss Thursday at Michigan State.
“Sometimes it happens. I thought we got pretty good shots in the first half. In the second half I thought our execution was just OK. We had some opportunities,” Groce said. “You just have to find other ways to grind it out.”
When the offense has struggled this season, what Groce calls “hero ball” comes into play: Players deviate from the system to try to make plays to get points on the board.
“Some of the guys are trying to be the one to get things rolling. You can’t really have that mind-set. It goes back to trusting the system like Coach always talks about, and we’ve just got to trust that the system will work out and let the game come to us,” Griffey said.
“We’ve definitely got to trust the system more. Trust is definitely big for us and our system. We definitely have to acknowledge that,” Abrams said.
Sunday’s game at Ohio State will be the first in Columbus for Groce, who spent three seasons as an assistant coach with the Buckeyes from 2004 to ’08 before taking his first head coaching job at Ohio.
His oldest son, 7-year-old Conner, was born at the Wexner Medical Center on the Ohio State campus.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the state, and that was a great part of our lives,” Groce said. “I’ve got a lot of friends there. Once the ball tips, then at that point it’s a game, and you’ve got to coach a game. Players have to make plays. You’ve got to play with some toughness and you’ve got to execute; that part doesn’t change.”