Illini turn attention to Selection Sunday

Illini turn attention to Selection Sunday

By MARCUS JACKSON

CHICAGO — Inside Illinois’ cramped United Center locker room, Myke Henry sat slumped in a chair, scrolling through text messages on his white iPhone following Friday’s 80-64 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

On the Illini sophomore’s wrist were an orange rubber bracelet and a blue one. Each one reads “TNT” and “3-19-13.”

“TNT” is Illinois’ team slogan: Toughness and Togetherness. “3-19-13” is the date the NCAA tournament begins. That’s been the goal of John Groce’s first Illinois team since it got together last spring.

The scoreboard at the Ubben Basketball Complex features the date prior to practices while the Illini warm up. The time shows 3:19. The score shows Blue Team 3, Orange 19.

That carrot has dangled in front of the Illini all season, but it wasn’t until the moments immediately following Friday’s loss that they allowed themselves to freely talk about the Dance publicly.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” fifth-year transfer Sam McLaurin said. “I hear it’s one of the best feelings as a player. Coach (Dustin) Ford always tells me, ‘You can’t beat that feeling.’ As a player, that’s where you want to be.”

Despite Friday’s loss in which first-team All-Big Ten Hoosiers Cody Zeller (24 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, two steals) and Victor Oladipo (12 points, 11 rebounds) dominated, Illinois has put itself in a comfortable position for Selection Sunday with six wins against the RPI Top 25. The only teams with more are second-ranked Duke (seven) and the third-ranked Hoosiers (eight).

“We’ve been talking about it since the beginning of the year, how bad we want to get to the NCAA tournament,” said Joseph Bertrand, who scored 10 points Friday. “That’s all we’ve been focused on. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to get in.”

The Illini have missed the NCAA tournament three of the last five years. Seniors Brandon Paul (16 points), D.J. Richardson (nine points) and Tyler Griffey (nine points) and fourth-year junior Bertrand will make their second appearance in the tournament next week.

“We’re going to look to make some noise the next couple weeks,” Griffey said. “It’s a tribute to us and how hard we’ve worked throughout the years.”

Said Paul: “We’re just excited for Sunday. We had a goal going into the season, so we’re excited for Sunday to see what happens.”

A year ago, Illinois was a program in limbo. Bruce Weber was fired after a 17-15 season, and the Illini were left out of the postseason after dropping 12 of their last 14 games.

Not only did Groce have to develop the roster he inherited physically, he had to rebuild morale.

“Think about where we started, think about what their goal was. They had a lot of naysayers in the beginning, and then we get off to a great start and expectations get really high and dealt with some adversity. We didn’t play very well, and then all of a sudden we started playing well again,” Groce said. “The hardest part for them and what I’m most proud of is that stretch where people were saying, ‘Here they go again.’ They fought and fought.”

With its record (22-12, 8-10 Big Ten) and resume, Illinois is essentially a lock for the NCAA tournament. The Illini were No. 8 seeds in Jerry Palm’s bracketology at CBS Sports entering Friday’s game, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had them as an 8 seed and Brad Evans at Yahoo! had them at a 7 before the loss to the Hoosiers (27-5).

Groce is cautiously optimistic heading into Sunday.

“What’s next for us is we’re gonna get together on Sunday; hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to be in it. It’s outside of our hands at this point; all of our body of work is in,” Groce said. “My dad used to say, ‘The hay’s in the barn.’ Sunday’s coming, and at 5 p.m. Central time, we’ve got 22 wins… I’m proud of our guys for their resiliency and their toughness, and we’ve played really well here the last 10, 11 games, and hopefully we’ll get a chance on Sunday to be rewarded for that.”

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