Just a year ago, Illinois spent Selection Sunday sitting on the edge of their seat like many other teams waiting for their name to be called, but it never was. This year, with wins against Indiana, Gonzaga, and Ohio State, you can bet the Illini were sitting pretty comfortably. The Fighting Illini drew a No. 7 seed in the East Region and will take on the No. 10 seed Colorado Buffaloes from the Pac-12 conference in Austin, Texas this Friday. Illini coach John Groce is thrilled with his team’s accomplishment in his first season as head coach.
“Obviously an exciting day for our basketball team,” Groce said. “I think it’s the greatest tournament, for our guys to have a chance to participate in it we feel very blessed. We worked very very hard and had that goal from the very beginning when I met with them and really solidified that as something they wanted to do in the fall when we first met together.”
The Buffaloes resume includes finishing fifth in the Pac-12 with wins over Arizona, Oregon twice, and Cal. Colorado is led by sophomore guard Spencer Dinwiddie who leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg), assists (3.0 apg) and three pointers made with 47.
Junior forward Andre Roberson provides the Buffaloes with an inside presence, as he’s averaging a double-double for the second consecutive season with 10.9 ppg and 11.3 rpg.
“Those teams are known for rebounding,” Groce said. “They’re well-balanced, they have five guys that average between nine points per game and double figures, they’re great at getting to the foul line, so obviously we’re gonna play hard without fouling. It will be a challenge.”
As a No. 7 seed, Illinois earns its highest seed in the NCAA tournament since 2009, when they were a No. 5 seed and were upset by No. 12 Western Kentucky in the first round.
In an up and down season for the Illini, Groce is proud that his players continued to fight. But there are still more games to play.
“I talked in particular to our seniors and to see that come into fruition in a way where they had to grind it out and be really tough at different parts of the season when others doubted them I think is a great life lesson for our guys,” Groce said. “It really—it’s certainly not satisfying because we worked for it—but certainly gratifying for those guys.”