COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Groce’s first Illinois basketball team has made a habit of tackling feats it routinely failed to accomplish in the past.
The core group of seniors consisting of Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and fourth-year junior Joseph Bertrand had never beaten Purdue in their careers. They ended an eight-game losing streak to the Boilermakers last month.
They were 0-2 against top-ranked teams before Paul and Griffey hooked up for a buzzer-beating layup to stun No. 1 Indiana on Feb. 7.
“We’re just trying to win some games and leave a mark here for our careers,” Richardson said.
Next on their agendas: Making a run in the Big Ten tournament.
After knocking off Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the 2010 tournament in Indianapolis, the Illini have lost three straight games in the conference’s postseason showcase, bowing out in their opening game each of the last two seasons.
“We’re not really worried about that. We’re just focused on this year; new team, new staff,” Griffey said.
A win today at No. 14 Ohio State and the Illini will wrap up the No. 7 seed in the tournament with a matchup against 10th-seeded Nebraska at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Chicago’s United Center.
Lose to the Buckeyes today and Illinois is the No. 8 seed playing ninth-seeded Minnesota at 11 a.m. Thursday.
“It really doesn’t matter (who we play),” Griffey said. “We’re fully concentrating on Ohio State right now. We just know that we need to win and don’t want to leave anything to chance. We just want to win as much as possible.”
Winning tournament basketball games is something Groce has made a habit of in recent years. At Ohio, he led the Bobcats to two Mid-American Conference tournament championships and two trips to the NCAA tournament (2010, 2012) — the first for Ohio since 1964.
In the two MAC tournament championships, Ohio was favored in neither. The Bobcats finished fifth in the East division in 2010 and third last year before making a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Groce was on the bench as an assistant coach at Ohio State in 2007 when the Buckeyes won the Big Ten tournament championship — the last time the event was held at the United Center.
“I was really lucky because I’ve worked with some great guys and I’ve had a chance and fortunate to coach a lot of good players at a lot of different places, so we’ve had a lot of tournament experience,” he said. “I’ve been able to digest that a little bit and watch and learn, so that was very helpful the first go-around. I had Ohio in my second year when we went to tournament that year. I felt like that experience I had in the past being in and around the tournament frequently was very helpful. I thought last year the experience we had, my second year versus my fourth year, that was helpful.
“I’m very fortunate and blessed to be involved in a lot of different postseason tournaments, so that’s been helpful.”
While Groce is a veteran of tournament basketball, a good portion of his roster is green when it comes to postseason play. Sophomore contributors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu played a combined 33 minutes in their lone Big Ten tournament game. Myke Henry didn’t see any action last year in the tournament loss to Iowa.
“This is pretty exciting. A lot of teams (don’t) really have anything to play for. We’ve got something to play for, so that’s pretty good. It’s definitely motivation for us, so we’ve got to keep going,” said Abrams, Illinois’ starting point guard. “You’ve just got to be tough and come out and play hard because everybody’s playing for something. You’ve got to play with a chip on your shoulder.”
The Illini are careful not to look too far ahead to the Big Ten tournament. They’ve got Columbus and the Buckeyes on their minds.
“Right now, we’re just still trying to win games, that’s the main thing,” Richardson said. “We’ve got a game against Ohio State. Hopefully get that one and get some confidence going into the Big Ten tournament.”
Said Griffey: “It should be a fun time. We’re playing in the best league in the country, so it’ll be fun regardless.”