Fresh off an EA Sports Maui Invitational championship and a close victory over Gardner-Webb on Sunday, the Illinois Fighting Illini are 7-0 and ranked 22nd in the nation in both polls. The sky is the limit for this team, but it wasn’t always that way; flashback to November 17th, a contest that pitted the Fighting Illini against the Hawaii Warriors in Honolulu. A team with so many question marks began to answer critics, and prove them right. Illinois once faced a 15 point deficit and trailed 77-75 with just seven seconds left in overtime. The Illini were moments away from failure. Critics would start to question new coach John Groce and label this season a rebuilding mode. Fans in Champaign who already endured a miserable season from their football would start to give up on sports as a whole.
And then, it happened. I was literally on the edge of my seat as I watched a crappy live steam of the game from Hawaii’s website. The game buffered so much that I watched more still action then actual game play. As the shot clock expired in overtime, all I could see was a frozen still frame of Illinois’s bench exploding. Later I found a replay of the shot, a baseline three pointer by senior D.J. Richardson that clinched the game for Illinois and avoided a disaster in the process.
The Illini carried over their momentum from the Hawaii game to the Maui Invitational. Illinois played three games in three days and absolutely tore through each opponent. Behind tourney MVP Brandon Paul, the Illini defeated USC, Chaminade, and Butler by a combined 70 points and never trailed in the entire tournament. Even the most optimistic of Illinois fans wouldn’t have pegged Illinois as the Maui Invitational winners before the season started. How have the Illini finally found success after a forgettable 2011-2012 season? Look no further than coach Groce.
Groce’s coaching philosophy starts on the offensive end. The Fighting Illini have been lights out for threes, hitting 11 three pointers in each of their first five contests, a mark they reached once all of last season. They’ve also improved from 66 to 80 points per game this season, good for 29th in the nation. Illinois has done all of this with few additions and without much point guard depth.
Groce has seamlessly plugged guards Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams into his system. Paul is averaging a career-high 18.7 points per game, 3.7 assists per game and he’s already hit 27 threes at a 42.6% clip. Paul has always had NBA scouts drooling over his talent, but he’s finally starting to turn his potential into production. He’s become more comfortable with the ball in his hands and he’s not afraid to take big shots.
In his second year, Abrams has improved from 4.3 to 12.3 points per game and has already made as many three pointers (9) as he made all of last season. Abrams is the lone true point guard for the Illini and he continues to evolve his game on both ends. Groce’s influence isn’t just shown in the box score.
Groce has the team hustling up and down the court, an area they’ve struggled in the past. Illinois has evolved into a full court team that can compete on both ends. His prowess of drawing up plays has paid dividends at the end of close games evident versus Hawaii and Gardner-Webb. Groce has met and surpassed expectations early on. It’s too early to tell, but he might just be the guy who to bring the Illini back to their glory days.
Heading into the Big Ten/ACC challenge game against Georgia Tech, Illinois leads the nation in wins and is one of 33 remaining undefeated teams. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, just last season Illinois went 10-0 before losing 15 of their last 22 games. Illinois has been ranked all three years since I’ve been a student, but so far they haven’t held onto that ranking at the end of the year. Under Groce, things might be different this season.