Overnight, John Groce has created a monster.
Look out, Tom Crean. Don’t forget to duck, Tom Izzo. There’ll be a new buzz in the Assembly Hall Sunday (Gardner-Webb) and Wednesday (Georgia Tech) when we see these South Seas warriors in the flesh.
The bodies look the same but the minds have clearly received a makeover.
Illini basketball has been transformed from last season’s tight,
despondent and sometimes tearful gang into an ultra-confident squad that thinks every shot is going in. They took Groce’s green light and turned it into a flashing red siren.
Is Groce a coach or a psychiatrist?
Hey, look over here, you Top 25 voters. It’s a small sample, but look who has the best record (6-0) in the nation’s best conference, this after wading through a Maui Classic featuring such well-oiled machines as North Carolina, USC, Marquette, Texas and Butler ... the Illini amassing a 70-point scoring margin and without ever trailing in three games.
Look who’s shooting without a conscience and leading the nation in three-point baskets. Is there still a 35-second clock? Uhh, don’t know. It never came up.
Look who’s switching and hedging and recovering on defense like new-born fanatics, and slipping in a zone when nobody’s watching.
Look who produced the tournament MVP (Brandon Paul), a tourney all-star (D.J. Richardson), a point guard worthy of the name (Tracy Abrams) and two lankies who stepped up at key moments (Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand).
Even as Paul drew individual accolades, the Hawaiian excursion was a collaborative effort. Like Tuesday night when Bertrand came off the bench to lead scoring with 14 points. Fourteen was tops in an 84-61 romp against Chaminade. That’s a team effort in the extreme.
Movin' on up
Then came Butler. It’s on your mind, so why not get it out.
On one bench sat a laid-back Brad Stevens, the two-time NCAA runner-up who could have named his own price by moving two hours west. On the opposite bench was the fiery Groce, alternate choice after leading Ohio’s Bobcats into the NCAA Sweet 16.
Butler’s reputation and gritty defense didn’t faze Illini swagger. They led 13-5 in the first five minutes, built margins to 23-10 and 37-22 despite incredible arc-shooting by Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke (last-shot star of Butler’s 72-71 defeat of Marquette) and showed five members notching treys in the first half.
How, Mr. Stevens, do you pack it in and set your missile defense when UI bombs are flying in from all directions? The Butler coach remained calm, which is his nature, but he didn’t have an answer.
Illinois slowed somewhat after the break but managed to fend off the appropriately named Bulldogs, an ever-improving Griffey sticking two treys between Paul and Richardson goals that ended all doubt at 59-44.
When the Bulldogs tried to foul their way back in, the Illini converted 15 of their last 19 points on free throws, demonstrating one more time why the end of basketball games can be so ill-conceived.
Analyzing the massacre he had witnessed, Stevens said: “Anybody who thinks that is a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with them.”
Hot to trot
If this sounds like an Illini three-point blizzard that can’t last, well ... here are some stats. Even now, as Illinois leads the nation with 11.5 treys per game, there are 40 teams shooting a higher percentage than the UI’s 41.1.
That’s not to say they can sustain that for a season but, consider, Indiana and Creighton shot 43.3 and 42.5 last season.
“We can shoot,” Groce said. “Maybe one through nine, we have the best shooting team that I have coached.”
Then, adding caution: “This is an extremely great start for our basketball team, but we have to make sure we do not eat the poisonous pill of success. We’re just six games in. We have a long way to go.”
Rebounding has been up and down, and remains a concern. The Illini sorely miss Meyers Leonard, who turned pro after his sophomore year.
Butler was more physical in the paint Wednesday, knocking the Illini around and winning the backboard battle while hauling down 15 offensive boards.
Groce has resolved one concern by insisting the Illini be “shot ready” and take every open opportunity without blinking. Fixing the rebounding for the rigors of Big Ten play will be another challenge.
Loren Tate writes for the News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.