CHAMPAIGN — From his armchair view in front of a television, Stephen Bardo has seen a different-looking Illinois basketball team this season.
On Wednesday night, the former Illini guard was back at the Assembly Hall, eager to check out the Illini in person.
“The intangibles jump off the screen when you watch them,” said Bardo, who handled analyst duties on ESPN2’s telecast of the Illinois-Georgia Tech game. “And (by that) I mean they’re confident, they’re aggressive. I hadn’t seen that in the last few years.
“And so it’s a little different persona — almost like a swagger this team has that I’m really anxious to see it in person.”
Bardo didn’t need to introduce himself to new Illini coach John Groce before the game. In his role with ESPN, Bardo worked the Mid-American
Conference tournament title game last season — the game Groce’s Ohio Bobcats won to stamp their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
“And I was very impressed then,” Bardo said. “And then when you talk to other coaches in the business about John Groce, it’s not surprising that he’s having this type of success because he was an up-and comer, a guy that people had on their radar. So he’s picked up right where his reputation has him within the coaching rankings.”
Although Groce has the Illini off to a 8-0 start after Wednesday's win against the Yellow Jackets, Bardo had a cautionary note for UI fans. Last season’s team opened 10-0 and later was 15-3. Those Illini ended with a 17-15 record.
“It’s still very early,” Bardo said. “This team is gonna have some tests — they had tests already and they’ve passed with flying colors — but they’re going to be much more tested. This (Big Ten) is the toughest conference in the country — so still understand this is a first-year coach and things take time.”