AUSTIN, Texas — It’s fitting that Illinois’ chance to reach the program’s first Sweet 16 in eight years comes against a team no one’s giving it a chance to beat.
The us-against-the-world approach is one the Illini have embraced this season. It will be as true as ever today when John Groce’s seventh-seeded squad takes the court at the Erwin Center against second-seeded Miami.
The Hurricanes, the ACC regular season and tournament champs, are seven-point favorites.
“We’ve been underdogs all year; we like that,” Tracy Abrams said. “Nobody even expected us to be here.”
Abrams & Co. are in the NCAA tournament in large part because they’ve thrived in situations where they were counted out before the ball was tipped.
The Illini went on the road and handed Gonzaga its only home loss. They routed Ohio State at home and staged an improbable comeback against No. 1 Indiana.
“We’re capable of beating anybody on any given day. We’ve done that all year,” Groce said.
At Gonzaga, it was Brandon Paul scoring a game-high 35 for the Illini, who shot 50 percent from the floor and buried 11 threes.
Defense ruled the day against the Buckeyes as Illinois held them 15 points below their season scoring average.
Against the Hoosiers, the Illini turned 14 turnovers into 28 points.
“It’s a matter of us playing together and tough,” Abrams said
What fuels Illinois doubters is a loss to a Purdue team that finished the season below .500, a home loss to Northwestern and grinding out an eyesore against Penn State late in the season.
“The lesser teams, we don’t play as well, and against the better teams, we always find that energy to play a little bit harder,” Sam McLaurin said.
“We’ve been getting better at that later on in the season. Definitely, I think, this team gets up for the better teams.”
Illinois will attempt to improve the program’s 2-9 NCAA tournament record against higher-seeded teams against a Miami team that boasts an imposing frontline featuring Naismith Award finalist Shane Larkin and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Durand Scott. Playing in the Big Ten against the likes of Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller and Deshaun Thomas should help.
“We’re not intimidated by anyone,” Paul said. “We have been through a lot of tough games this season; we played top teams. This is just another challenge for us.”
The Canes are aware of Illinois.
“Illinois is a good team, so I wouldn’t say if they were to beat us it’s an upset because they’re a pretty good team. I understand we’re a 2 seed, but they’re still a good team,” center Reggie Johnson said. “We saw some film on Indiana. Those guys play hard, and to beat Indiana, most people say that’s the best team in the country, so you know you’ve got your work cut out for you if they beat those guys. It’s gonna be a pretty good game.”
In Friday’s NCAA opener against Colorado, the Illini were seeded higher and oddsmakers pegged them as the favorites. But the Buffaloes were an attractive upset pick.
“I can’t stop them from reading social media and watching TV in their hotel rooms. I mean, they know,” Groce said. “I think pride takes over a little bit. We’ve got a lot of competitive guys in our locker room. I’m sure they’re looking forward to the challenge tomorrow.”
Said D.J. Richardson: “People can say what they want to, have their own predictions, but in our locker room, we always believe.”