CHAMPAIGN — Want to get under John Groce’s skin? Ask the Illinois coach about his team’s confidence. Or the mind-set of a roster whose collective psyche was broken down by amateur psychiatrists and labeled frequently as fragile after their collapse last season.
“I’m tired of that deal. I said today to the staff, that’s out; I’m tired of that deal,” Groce said. “We have to figure it out; that’s on us. We have absolutely no excuses; we have to man up and play. We have to fight. We’ve done that the majority of the year, and that’s the expectation that we’ve got to have.”
Even so, there are plenty of Illini backers who are nervous entering today’s Big Ten matchup against in-state rival Northwestern (7:15, BTN) at the Assembly Hall. It was about the same time on the calendar last year when the slide began for the Illini, who were 15-3 and 4-1 in the Big Ten coming off an upset win against Ohio State.
They would go on to lose 12 of the last 14 games to miss the postseason.
Now, 18 games into this season, Groce’s first at Illinois, the Illini are 14-4. Like last season’s squad, this group beat Gonzaga and pulled off an unexpected win against a Top 10 Ohio State team.
But they’ve lost four of six after a 12-0 start, and the panicked fan base is fearful of a repeat of 2011-12.
“Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean that it’s going to inevitably happen,” Groce said. “That’s on us. We’ve got to control that with what we can control with our effort, our toughness, our togetherness, our mind-set. I think those things are things that we can control, and we’ve got to do that. If we can’t do that, that’s on us.”
The panic is there because this Illinois team featured essentially the same cast of characters as last season, minus 7-foot lottery pick Meyers Leonard.
But last year, then-coach Bruce Weber and his staff were under fire. The pressure on the staff and the rumors about their futures trickled down to the players. The result was a 17-15 season that resulted in a coaching change after missing the NCAAs for the third time in five seasons.
“I think you’ve already seen in the first part of the season they have been able to respond to adversity or a tough spot,” said former Illinois center Robert Archibald, who recently retired after a 10-year pro career in the NBA and overseas. “It’s a natural reaction of a fan to make an absolute. These kids are going to be chomping at the bit. They’re four games into a tough Big Ten season, so I think it’s way early to be making statements like that.
“The big positive they have is four seniors — five if you count (Joseph) Bertrand — this is their team. Everything is left open for whatever they want it to be.”
The major difference between this team and last season’s is the leadership, both on the bench and on the floor. Illinois’ lone senior last season was Sam Maniscalco, who, in his first season with the program, missed a good chunk of the Big Ten season while dealing with a chronic ankle injury.
Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Bertrand are in their fourth seasons with the Illinois program. Transfer Sam McLaurin was voted a team captain after transferring from Coastal Carolina, where he spent four seasons.
They’ve been through a lot and are confident their experiences in the past can prevent another collapse.
“If you let it affect you, a couple losses will turn into a few losses,” Paul said. “You can’t get them back, but the only thing you can do is work toward the future so you can eliminate possible distractions, things you did in the last game to come out with a victory in the next game.”
With Groce and the new coaching staff, positive energy is pumped into the players, whether it’s after a double-digit win against Butler to win the Maui Invitational or a bad loss on the road against a struggling Purdue squad.
“They can’t control, nor can I control, how many questions you get asked about mind-set, mental, whatever you want to call it. Confidence, fragile, all that stuff. My whole deal is man up. Confidence is not a magic wand,” Groce said. “As my old coach Todd Lickliter used to say when I played for him, ‘You earn the right to be confident.’ Do the right things, do it that way consistently and at the end of the day it will work itself out.”