Groce's squad comfortable on road

Groce's squad comfortable on road

BOSTON — The term first entered the public’s lexicon after Illinois’ win on Feb. 19 at Minnesota. Freshman guard Kendrick Nunn, after scoring 19 points in the win against the Gophers, casually dropped it during his postgame comments. “Road kills are always big,” he said.

Road kills. It’s the term the Illini use to describe road wins. Coach John Groce started using it in an effort to get his team fired up playing away from home. And during Illinois’ successful late-season stretch, it’s been used more frequently.

The second-seeded Illini enter Wednesday night’s NIT opener against seventh-seeded Boston University (6 p.m., ESPN2) winners of five of their last seven games. Of those five wins, three have come inside the opponent’s home arena. Another win was the Big Ten tournament opener against Indiana on a neutral floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

In other words, the Illini have been collecting roadkill at a rate that could challenge the Illinois Department of Transportation.

“It’s definitely something I’ve embraced over the last couple of years,” Tracy Abrams said. “Coach kind of brought that here with him; the importance of going on the road, getting a win and buying in and trusting each other and all that through that adversity of the crowd and whatever else. That’s a road kill.”

Because of the State Farm Center renovation project, which kicked into full swing immediately after the home finale against Michigan on March 4, Illinois cannot play home games during the NIT. So as long as they’re alive in the tournament, the Illini will hunt road kills.

“It’s all about trying to withstand the adversity that comes with playing on the road with the crowd and travel and all that, being strong in going through all that and coming up with a victory,” Nnanna Egwu said.

Well before the ball was to be tipped for Wednesday night’s tilt against the Terriers, the Illini began brushing adversity to the side. Their team plane was scheduled to leave Savoy at 3 p.m. following practice. But a delay pushed the flight to New England back more than three hours.

Instead of wasting time, Illinois players got their study hall commitments taken care of, and Illinois’ entire travel party had dinner together at the Ribeye during the delay. Whether it be delayed flights, bad weather or a tough call from an official, Illinois has weathered the issues all season.

“We’ve certainly exemplified being road warriors here late in the year. We’ve played some good basketball on the road, and I think our guys feel very comfortable with our routine away from home, and we’re just going to stick to what we normally do,” Groce said.

That’s another component in orchestrating a successful road kill: routine. Egwu likes to sit in the same seat on
the team plane or the bus. “Usually the first row of where the players sit,” he said.

Abrams’ sleep and eating habits remain unchanged. “I like to get nine, 10 hours of sleep and then eat a big breakfast; that’s the most important thing,” he said.

In the end, the most important as-
pects of crafting a road kill go back to the principles of Illinois’ team motto. You have to be tough, and you have to be together.

“On the road, you’ve just got each other without really anybody else there to support you,” Abrams said. “You’ll have a couple fans, but you rely on each other, and with that togetherness, that helps out a lot.”

“We’re taking that momentum to Boston because we understand we’ve played well, and we’re taking that mentality,” Egwu said.

If all goes well for the Illini, they’ll take their road show all the way to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four.

“We’re definitely looking forward to getting a couple of road kills,” Abrams said. “We’re embracing the challenge. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

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