Illini vs. Colorado: Let the fun begin

CHAMPAIGN — When John Groce met with Illinois players for the first time after taking the job last March, the coach asked them their goal for the upcoming season. The consensus was clear: reach the NCAA tournament.

Never mind this was a group of players who had just lost 12 of their last 14 games and waited in limbo for weeks as a replacement for Bruce Weber was being sought. Forget the fact that 7-foot star Meyers Leonard left with two years of eligibility remaining to be selected in the NBA lottery.

This group wanted to reach the Dance — and Groce was confident he could help the players accomplish it.

The journey wasn’t a smooth one and it wasn’t pretty, but the Illini are back in what Groce calls “the world’s greatest tournament” as a No. 7 seed playing No. 10 seed Colorado at 3:40 p.m. Friday in Austin, Texas (TNT).

“Obviously an exciting day for our basketball team,” Groce said. “For our guys to have a chance to participate in it, we feel very blessed. They’ve worked very, very hard.”

“It’s a great feeling. I was sitting next to Tracy (Abrams) during the selection show, and he was shaking the whole time,” senior Sam McLaurin said. “He was like, ‘Man, when (are) they gonna call us? When are they gonna call us?’ ”

It appeared as though reaching that goal was going to be a breeze in the early part of the season as the Illini won the Maui Invitational in dominating fashion. The team that was projected to finish in the bottom third of the Big Ten — with a likely postseason destination of the NIT — won at Gonzaga, started the season 12-0 and cracked the Top 10 for the first time since 2006.

“We got off to a great start and expectations got really high,” Groce said.

Then, the Big Ten happened. Illinois struggled out of the gate, going 2-7 during the first half of the conference slate, including a home loss to Northwestern. All the good feelings that surrounded the program during the blistering start were gone. The team was out of the Top 25, and the group that ended last season in a free fall appeared a long shot to reach the program’s third NCAA tournament in the last six years.

“I mentioned that stretch where we started early Big Ten play and didn’t play particularly well, and they continued to stay the course,” Groce said.

Groce and the coaching staff asked the players to put their trust in them because they believed so strongly in what they teach. Groce had experience in reaching the NCAA tournament and having success there. He led 13th-seeded Ohio to the Sweet 16 last year and within a couple of free throws of beating North Carolina for a berth in the Elite Eight. It was his second trip to the tournament in four years with the Bobcats.

As an assistant at Ohio State, he was on the bench for the Buckeyes’ run to the NCAA title game.

The offensive scheme stayed the same. So did the defense. The only wrinkle in the day-to-day process was going back to the basics and brushing up on the finer points of the system after a home loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 3 — Illinois’ sixth setback in seven games.

“It was tough, those were some grueling and long practices, but it paid off,” senior Tyler Griffey said. “We’re a great group of guys, and we worked really hard, and Coach Groce has had some success at this level. We knew that he knew what he was doing, and we trusted him.”

A win against top-ranked Indiana was the beginning of a five-game win streak that brought the goal of the NCAA tournament back into play.

The Illini said as much at Sunday’s celebration during a viewing of CBS’ selection show at the Colonnades Club inside Memorial Stadium.

“It’s really satisfying. It shows once we stay together and have a goal in mind, you can achieve it as long as you keep the right mind-set,” senior Brandon Paul said. “We could have pouted, we could have been mad about all the things that happened, but you just have to move on as a basketball player, you’ve got to have a short-term memory.

“It shows we’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of character. We never doubted ourselves; our coaches wouldn’t let us doubt ourselves and being resilient has been really big in this. We just stay focused, and we didn’t let anybody take our minds off of what our main goal was.”

Now the goal shifts. While excited to have reached the tournament, Illinois players said Sunday this isn’t a situation where they’re just happy to be there. The plan now is to keep playing as long as possible as Illinois will be looking for the program’s third win in the NCAA tournament since the 2005 team reached the title game.

“Like Coach always says, ‘There’s no greater feeling than getting into the tournament (except) advancing in the tournament,’ ” McLaurin said. “That’s what our goal is right now, just keep advancing one game at a time.”

Comments

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JimOATSfan wrote on March 18, 2013 at 4:03 am

Congratulations and thanks to the new coaches and the players. You earned it, and Illini Nation loves it.  Certainly we didn't know if you could achieve it at the start of the year, but we are in that collective happiness about our school thanks to you all.

NCAA Tournament

Win 1 game - and Illini Nation's head is nodding "yes, this is the way it should be every season."

Win 2 games - and Illini Nation is high fiving anybody nearby.

Win 3 games - and Illini Nation is screaming and yelling like we are all 19 year olds again.

Win 4 games - and Illini Nation is trashing talkin' everybody in sight, even our grandparents, if they aren't Illini fans.

Win 5 games - and you just made your dreams come true (and ours too.)

Have fun, play great, remember everything the coaches taught you, make 50% of your shots (90% of your ft's) and you are unbeatable.

Go Illini !!!

bluehavana wrote on March 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

Add a win to that total JimOats...you need six to take down the title.

teachdacc wrote on March 18, 2013 at 5:03 am

Congratulations!  As coach has said :  Believe and follow your dreams.  JimOats says it best for us Illini fans!   Go Illini!  

illinigator wrote on March 18, 2013 at 9:03 am

What do you doubters have to comment on now?  Moonpie, We"re waiting for one of your lame explanations.  As a coach you forget that these are kids, just coming into their manhood and will make mistakes both on the court and in life.  These young men have came a long way to accomplish their goal.  Not only on the court, but in the their accomplishment in getting their education. So I say congratulations to all these young men for reaching out and acheiving their goals and wish them the best in acheiving future goals.   

74illini wrote on March 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

Illinois could have not asked for a better draw for a first round match-up IMHO.  We still need to bring the defensive intensity.  That is number 1!  Play hard and do work and good things will happen.  

I watched Colorado play twice this season, one game was against USC. (66-60 W), but USC had that game to win in the final seconds.  Colorado turns the ball over in bunches.  They are no where near as fast as us.  So it will be key for them to make this a half court 50 point pace game.  They do play good defense, but not as good as the Illini.  Illinois has more depth and experience and just better talent.  Colorado reminds me a lot of Nebraska, Lengthy, but slow with one good guard.

Illinois 70

Colorado 62.

geriatricillini wrote on March 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

Hey Gator:

I feel the same way, but with the anonymous screen names used on the internet you will get negativity..and a lot of it. People will post things they wouldn't have the guts to say to your face or in public. It's a new world whether we like it or not..the cyberworld of rants and the "I know everything and you are an idiot" mentality I see in comments all over the place.

You should read some of the stuff the other so called fans say about their teams, players and coaches. It seems all the sports knowledge these days is behind a keyboard. I look at it as kinda like the difference between flying a simulator and a real jet. Not even close to the knowledge needed. But that doesn't prohibit someone from spouting off...let 'em do it. In fact, I have posted some general negative things out of frustration, but I never made it a personal attack and I never will.

Regardless, these guys did enough to get in and get a decent seed and from what has been going on here for the last few seasons, it a refreshing change. And I refuse to let anyone's negativity bring me down and I believe you won't either my friend. So.... Go Illini!!

1 illinifan wrote on March 18, 2013 at 11:03 am

Well done coaching staff! Way to go team! Well said JimOATSfan!

 

Remember team, with the teams you have already beaten this year, the only thing that can stop you in this tournament, is you! Nothing else!

 

So go and have fun!

BracketMarch wrote on March 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Congratulations! Go ILLINI!

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