John Groce arrived at Illinois less than a year ago, fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance at Ohio, and talked about making his new school “the standard of excellence” among Big Ten basketball programs.
To further the process, the first-year coach handed out orange motivational bracelets designed to offer a constant reminder of the Illini’s quest. The bracelets are inscribed with the initials “TNT,” an abbreviation for “togetherness and toughness,” and a specific date: March 19, 2013.
The date corresponded with the start of the NCAA Tournament and Illinois (23-12), a No. 7 seed in the East Region, has extended its season past that target date heading into Sunday’s matchup against second-seeded Miami (28-6) in the Erwin Center. Another win would give the Illini the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2005.
It also would add another significant milestone in a turnaround season that has seen Illinois knock off two teams ranked No. 1 in the college basketball polls during the regular season: Gonzaga, the current No. 1 team, and Indiana, which spent more weeks in the top spot than any school this season.
Illinois guard Brandon Paul, the team’s leading scorer (16.6 avg.), said this is the type of turnaround he envisioned the first time he met Groce, who led Ohio to last year’s Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed before taking the Illini job on March 29, 2012. Paul, a senior, said the new coaching staff immediately clicked with Illinois’ returning players, who posted a 17-15 mark and failed to reach the postseason under former coach Bruce Weber.
“The coaches came in with the mindset they wanted to win and they didn’t want this to be a rebuilding year. And we had the same mindset,” Paul said. “I was really impressed by the way coach Groce opened up to us players. He had individual meetings with everyone. He wanted to know our backgrounds, our friends, our family growing up. That really impressed me. It gave me the type of confidence in him that continues to grow to this day.”
Groce, who has a 4-2 career mark as a head coach in the NCAA Tournament, said he considered the individual sessions “really important” in forming a quick bond with a veteran team that features four seniors among its top seven players, including three starters.
“For me, I’ve always felt like to coach our players, I have to know them,” Groce said. “I want to know what motivates each guy, how they learn best, what drives them, what are their insecurities. … If they feel that it’s very genuine and you care about them as people first, students second and athletes third, then they usually will run through a wall for you. And these guys have done that. I’m grateful for that. They were very open-minded.”
The bottom line shows Illinois with a tournament title from the EA Sports Maui Invitational, where the Illini knocked off Butler 78-61 in the title game. Illinois is the only team to win this season at top-ranked Gonzaga (32-2), an 85-74 triumph on Dec. 8, and the Illini upset then-No. 1 Indiana 74-72 on Feb. 7.
But the team mixed in two three-game losing streaks during conference play, raising questions about consistency that still linger heading into the Miami game. In Friday’s 57-49 victory over Colorado, the Illini prevailed despite being outscored 21-0 in one stretch and squandering a 16-point halftime lead.
Illinois rallied with an 18-5 closing surge in the final 8:33 to eliminate Colorado. Those flashes of brilliance, particularly from behind the 3-point arc, are what concern Miami coach Jim Larranaga.
“It’s very challenging any time you play a team like Illinois that shoots a lot of threes,” Larranaga said. “Any time you let up on defense, they could drain four of five threes in a row … and change the game.”
Illinois players take confidence in the fact that Groce, during his tenure at Ohio, won two NCAA games as a No. 13 seed and another as a No. 14 seed.
“It just shows us that if we listen to him, it gives us a good opportunity to win,” forward Sam McLaurin said. “He’s won with lesser talent, and we have the talent to win games in this tournament.”
Forward Tyler Griffey said: “He knows what he’s doing. He’s had success at this level. We trust that when he says something, it’s going to work.”
Thus far, it’s worked well enough to get the Illini back to the NCAA Tournament. But the team, which finished 8-10 in the Big Ten standings, is a long way from being deemed a standard for excellence in its league.
That could change with a run to the Sweet 16, or beyond. Paul said the Illini will not be wowed by Miami’s ACC regular-season and tournament titles.
“We’re not intimidated by anyone,” Paul said. “We’ve played top teams. We went into a hostile crowd and won at Gonzaga. This is just another challenge for us.”