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.”