Miami 63, UI 59: Notebook
AUSTIN, Texas — Former Illinois star Stephen Bardo went on record last year to say he felt like the Illini quit on Bruce Weber and his staff at the end of the season that resulted in Weber being fired.
Bardo didn’t have great expectations for the Illini entering the season because of the way things unfolded a year ago, but he’s convinced the program is in good shape under John Groce.
“I think a lot of the credit goes to John Groce because we saw some similar trends from last year to this year, but for some reason they were able to right the ship and improve,” said Bardo, an ESPN analyst who attended Sunday’s game. “The win at home against Indiana was a tremendous effort and victory for the program in general. A lot of the credit has to go to John Groce.”
That Illinois was able to reach the NCAA tournament and win 20-plus games this season came as a surprise to Bardo.
“We saw what happened with them last year,” he said. “It was a bad scenario, and when you have guys that come back who were a part of that you feel like they might be resistant to new coaching, but they seem to have really taken to John. He’s done a tremendous job of rebuilding their confidence and they’ve done a much better job than I expected.”
Entering NCAA tournament play Sunday, Big Ten teams were 8-1, with Michigan and Michigan State already moving on to the Sweet 16. Ohio State and Indiana picked up wins early in the day to get the conference four teams in the Sweet 16.
“I saw some matchups I thought would be problematic with VCU and Michigan, but they did a great job,” Bardo said. “Ohio State busting through, they did a great job. It’s good to see the conference get the recognition at this level because one of the things that’s been talked about over the years is the conference hasn’t shown well in the NCAA tournament.”
Each NCAA tournament games provides Illinois with unparalleled exposure on a national and local level. Under Groce, the Illini are trying to return the program to prominence while at the same time attempting to develop a more prominent presence in Chicago and across the state.
Recruits watch NCAA games on television, so do prominent alums.
“I think it certainly helps. I’ve always said success breeds success,” Groce said. “I think that it gives us credibility for sure.”
The Illinois program has taken a big step in Groce’s first year, winning a game in the tournament for the second time in the last six years. The hope is that it’s just the beginning.
“We still have a long way to go,” Groce said. “We haven’t arrived by any means. We understand the importance of our state and of Chicago and I know (athletic director Mike Thomas) is working very diligently, our staff is as well. We’re all doing our part to connect and I think that’s the most important thing.”
At one point, Miami guard Shane Larkin was all set to play his college ball in the state of Illinois at DePaul. The sophomore enrolled at the Chicago school in the summer of 2011 before withdrawing to return close to home because of an undisclosed medical condition.
“It was probably the hardest decision I had to make in my life, just going back on my word,” Larkin said.
During his brief stay in Lincoln Park, the son of Hall of Fame shortstop Baryr Larkin didn’t get to know any of the Illinois players, but he did play against Tracy Abrams on the traveling summer basketball circuit in high school.
“I know what type of player he is,” Larkin said of Abrams. “He’s a great player.”
Said Abrams: “I do remember us playing. He was a pretty good player and he definitely got a lot better.”
When he was about 7 years old, Larkin told his father that baseball wouldn’t be in his future. He didn’t have a passion for the game. It appears as though the Naismith Award finalist made the right decision.
“Baseball just wasn’t the sport for me,” he said. “I’m glad I’m playing basketball. I love playing basketball.”
Barry Larkin sat in the stands, occasionally taking out his cellphone to snap photos and shoot videos of his son on the floor Sunday. He supported his son’s decision to not pursue baseball.
“It was good growing up with him. He taught me to have good character on the court, be humble, never really showboat, just be a poised individual,” Shane Larkin said. “He was never a guy who showed off. He had like 12 all-star appearances, (Silver) Slugger Award, MVP, but he was always cool and never showed off. He was always a cool, humble guy and I really looked up to that and I just want to be like him.
“Of course, he wanted me out there playing baseball, but he’s a very supportive father and he loves what I’m doing now. He’s having a lot of fun with it so it’s great just knowing he supports me in any sports I play.”
In the day’s first game from the Erwin Center, 11th-seeded Minnesota fell to third-seeded Florida 78-64 in a South Regional contest.
Rumors have swirled about the future of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith’s job status after the Gophers finished the season with a 21-13 record following a 15-1 start.
Smith was asked if he had any indication that he might lose his job following the game.
“No,” he said.
The Gophers will lose Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe but return a solid guard tandem in Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins.
“We can do some good things next year,” Andre Hollins said. “We’re going to be experienced. Austin is going to be a senior. Myself, Joe (Coleman), we’re going to be juniors. Elliott Eliason, Oto Osenieks, Mo Walker coming back. We’re going to be tough.”