CHAMPAIGN — Taking bets on which coach — Illinois’ John Groce and Indiana’s Tom Crean — would receive a technical foul in Tuesday’s Big Ten opener between the Illini and Hoosiers, the best odds might have been with those who chose Crean.
But it was the second-year Illini boss who got whistled for a technical foul late in the first half after arguing a non-foul call on Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, who was pressuring Illinois’ Tracy Abrams on the perimeter.
Official Mark Whitehead penalized Groce for his demonstrative behavior and tone for the first technical foul of the season on the Illinois coach.
“Those guys are obviously doing the best job they can. Our league has some of the best in the country and you’ve got to coach the game,” Groce said. “I deserved the technical foul. Mark gave it to me. I deserved it.”
The infraction on their coach fired up the Illini for the stretch immediately following. After Ferrell knocked down both free throws, Illinois went on a 5-0 run to take a three-point lead when Joseph Bertrand hit a running jumper and Rayvonte Rice got a steal and went the distance to complete the layup while being fouled. He made the ensuing free throw.
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There might be bad blood between the fan bases of each school, but the two coaches spent a portion of their time after Illinois’ 83-80 overtime win gushing about one another.
Crean opened by commending Illinois for how tough and together it plays and the job Groce has done in his second season with the Illini.
“John is — I don’t say this with anything but the greatest respect — he’s one of the best coaches in the country,” Crean said. “The league’s got a lot of them and there’s no question he is. His staff is so on top of everything, and I really admire how he’s built this.”
Groce, who embraced Crean after the game while the two spoke and shook hands, had nothing but positive things to say about the Indiana coach and his program.
“They’re so well-coached. They put their players in position to succeed,” Groce said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Tom and what they do with their team and their personnel.”
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The previous three games have been ones to remember for freshman Kendrick Nunn, who had two steals and two points in the loss to Oregon in Portland, three points and three steals in the win against Missouri and four points and a steal against UIC at the United Center in his hometown.
The 6-foot-3 freshman from Simeon made his Big Ten debut a memorable one, too, finishing one point shy of his career high in scoring with seven points to go along with three more steals, tying a career high.
“He made winning plays,” Groce said. “He’s won a lot in his career and been on a lot of different stages against a lot of different teams. I love his toughness, and he made some tough plays.”
Groce was pleased with the efforts of all five of his freshmen, including Maverick Morgan, who scored four points and grabbed a rebound in nine minutes.
“I thought they were good. I thought their minutes and the possessions they played were really valuable,” Groce said. “I thought Morgan and (Austin) Colbert really battled the first half. I thought (Malcolm) Hill was ready to go, (Jaylon) Tate was ready to go. He made a couple passes I think he’d like to have back. Jaylon’s one of those guys that’s really hard on himself. He doesn’t like to give the ball away. We’ll take a look at those, (and) we’ll get better with that.”
None stood out more than Nunn, especially in crunch time.
“Nunn was unbelievable late in the game,” Groce said. “He read the zone up on the on-ball, deflects the ball, (and) he comes up with the loose ball. He had a really good block out and he made a lot of toughness plays for us late in the game.”
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With the students out of school for the semester, some wondered what the crowd would be like for the Big Ten opener on New Year’s Eve. Groce wasn’t worried about it, and the Illinois fans showed why with 16,618 showing up for the first home sellout of the season.
“I give our fans a lot of credit, I thought they were a huge, huge sixth man (Tuesday). The environment in there was electric. It was great,” Groce said. “My expectations for our fan base and Illini Nation is pretty high. I expect nothing less, and they certainly made a big difference (Tuesday).”
At crucial points in the game, Groce raised his arms to get the fans on their feet, as did his assistants on the bench. The players got involved, too, and it helped the team.
“It was a great crowd for us. You can definitely feed off the energy that the crowd brings,” Abrams said. “We definitely appreciate the support the fans give to us. That made a difference. Fans screaming just gives guys that extra juice to want to make that extra play.”
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Among the 16,618 in the building on Tuesday were recruiting targets Nojel Eastern and Jeremiah Tillman.
Eastern is a freshman guard from Evanston, and Tillman is a 6-foot-9 freshman forward from East St. Louis.
The youngsters, who were greeted by Illinois fans in the arena, are starting to understand the attention they’re going to be receiving, being highly regarded prospects.
“I’m surprised. I didn’t know this was going to happen,” said Tillman while surrounded by a handful of reporters.
Tillman is a fan of the Illinois coaching staff.
“I like the school, I like the team. I see how it is here, (and) I like everything,” Tillman said. “I’ve got a good relationship with them. They visited my school a lot in East St. Louis and they just watch me.”
Eastern was blown away at the level of play during Tuesday’s game.
“It’s great coming here and seeing college players play because I’m in high school,” he said. “It’s such a big transition to see the aggressiveness and the coaching.”
Illinois signee Michael Finke also attended Tuesday’s game.