Sky-high Illini get back to business
John Groce didn’t wait until Friday’s late-afternoon practice to get through to his players.
Text-messaging them, Groce reminded the Illini not of their upset of No. 1 Indiana on Thursday but of their opponent on Sunday.
“They kicked our tail not too long ago,” Groce said Friday.
That’d be Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Gophers, ranked 18th, always hard to beat at Williams Arena and convincing 17-point winners Jan. 9 in Champaign.
“As soon as we rest on our laurels and think we’ve arrived because of one game ... we’re not going to allow our season to be defined by one game,” Groce said.
The program’s third win against a top-ranked team wrapped up around 8 p.m. Thursday when Tyler Griffey’s layup beat the buzzer. But conversation about the comeback continued deep into Friday, with Groce and his players making countless TV and radio appearances.
The media blitz, Groce said, compared to the day he was hired at Illinois and November’s Signing Day.
“It’s a good thing,” he said.
At 3-7, Illinois is in ninth place in the Big Ten.
But with three wins against Top 10 teams — Indiana, Butler, Gonzaga — the 16-8 Illini remain in contention for an NCAA tournament bid.
“We’re in the game; we’re in the ballpark on Feb. 8,” Groce said. “We still have some work to do.”
According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, Illinois is in the tournament. The noted bracketologist on Friday listed the Illini as one of the last four teams in the field — as a No. 11 seed and facing Arizona State in a play-in game.
The Illini have eight regular season games remaining before the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
As of Friday, about 3,000 tickets remained for each of the three home games: Purdue on Wednesday, Penn State on Feb. 21 and Nebraska on March 2.
Jason Heggemeyer, associate athletic director in charge of ticketing, said Thursday’s win “created a lot of excitement.” The UI is offering a three-game package for $50 that Heggemeyer hopes will continue the string of sellouts at the Assembly Hall (five in the last six games).
“We all know how big these last three games are for us,” he said.
Students are aware.
“The mood is fantastic. There’s a lot of energy, a buzz that I haven’t seen in a while.” Orange Krush Foundation president McKennon Biers said in an email Friday. “People are excited, and hopefully this can propel us to a few more wins to finish the year strong.”
Biers, who watched Thursday’s game from across the Indiana bench, spent postgame roaming the Assembly Hall court.
“As a student, you hope to be a part of something like that during your time here, and getting to experience last night’s stunner as a member of Orange Krush was just truly amazing,” he said. “It’s hard to think of a single happier moment, ever. The buildup of emotion was so great, not only because they were No. 1 but the comeback, too. The way we went about it was special.”
Champaign’s Daniel Borup, president of Illini Pride, kicked off Thursday’s game with a rousing rendition of the national anthem. He ended it by storming the court.
“Campus today is awesome,” he said. “Every other person I’ve walked by has been talking about the game or the friend they know that was there.
“I’ve seen a lot more orange on Green Street today than a usual winter Friday, that’s for sure.”
Matt Daniels contributed to this report.