ST. LOUIS — It did not take John Groce long to learn what kind of team he inherited at Illinois.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Within the first two weeks of practice, Groce, who was hired away from Ohio after the Fighting Illini’s disappointing 17-15 campaign last season, quickly realized that his team could not only score, but was eager and willing to learn, too.
“The thing that’s most surprising, probably, is that right from the beginning, they bought in,” Groce said. “They tried to buy in every day. They’ll ask questions — you’ve got to earn their trust, get to know them. But there was no fight there, and that is why we are where we are right now.”
Where the Illini are right now is 12-0, ranked No. 10 in the country and supremely confident heading into their annual Braggin’ Rights game on Saturday against No. 12 Missouri.
A far cry from last season, for sure, when Illinois opened the campaign 15-3, only to limp to a 2-12 record the rest of the way and miss the NCAA Tournament. The finish presumably cost longtime coach Bruce Weber his job, and obviously left a bad taste in the mouths of the Illini’s four returning starters.
“They’re an older group that’s been through a lot,” Groce said. “They’ve seen success, they’ve seen adversity. They’ve seen people call them rock stars, they’ve seen people call them scum. … The reality is you’re not a rock star and you’re not scum. You’re somewhere in between every day. They’ve done a good job of being centered.”
Perhaps no player embodies that more than Illinois’ best player, 6-foot-4 senior Brandon Paul. He leads his team in points (18.8), rebounds (5.1) and assists (3.5) and has caught the eye of Missouri coach Frank Haith, who will likely assign athletic senior Keion Bell to guard the talented Paul. “He’s passing the ball, and he’s hard to guard off the bounce as well,” Haith said. “And the thing he’s really elevated is his jump-shooting. His shooting percentages are up and … he carries himself like he’s the leader of that team.”
Because he is.
“I took a lot of responsibility (for what happened),” Paul said of last season. “I felt like it was my team, and I feel like it’s my team this year. I didn’t perform as (well) as I needed to when the team needed me. I made mistakes — no one is perfect — and I think that made us stronger.”
Senior forward Tyler Griffey said it’s been “unbelievable” watching Paul grow into his own this season.
“He’s playing the best basketball I’ve ever seen him play,” Griffey said. “Coach Groce has done a good job of putting him in positions to be successful.”
Griffey said Groce’s offensive system, which calls for a high number of ball screens, maximizes Paul’s skill-set. And like Haith, he also noticed a change in Paul’s on-court demeanor.
“He’s happy,” Griffey said. “We’re all happy. We’re playing with confidence … we’re back to basketball. It’s fun to be out there.”
Unlike last year?
“As the losses piled up, it just got tough,” Griffey said. “But the guys have responded well. Look where we are now.
“The fresh start was, maybe, what we needed.”
Paul agreed, and hinted that Groce’s offensive system has empowered him and his teammates. Paul and fellow backcourt mates D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams average almost 42 points per game combined.
“They give you a lot of confidence and a lot of freedom,” Paul said of the coaching staff. “Coach Groce trusts us to do what we need to do to score, as long as it’s within the offense. I think everyone sees this offense fits the type of players we have.”
So yes, this game will certainly be an intriguing test for Missouri, particularly on the perimeter. Illinois is shooting 38.6 percent from three-point land this season while averaging ten made threes per game, the most in the NCAA.
“I think it’s the best shooting team I’ve coached as an assistant or head coach,” Groce said. “We’ve had halves where we’ve had six or seven guys make threes. … That makes you pretty explosive and can give you a chance in any game.”
Illinois hopes that goes doubly true for Saturday’s game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, when they will try to snap a three-game losing streak to a Missouri team that has apparently earned the respect of Groce, who rattled off the following list when asked what worries him most about the Tigers.
“Size, rebounding, size, depth, talent … did I miss anything?” Groce said with a grin. “A lot of things.”
But given his players’ confidence after such a strong start to the season, its safe to assume that Saturday’s showdown should make for another close, competitive game in one of the country’s best neutral-court rivalries.
“Coach Groce has given us the confidence to be able to achieve what we’ve done,” Griffey said. “And we’re not looking to stop anytime soon.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.