The 2013-14 season was supposed to be a bit of a down year for the Illinois basketball program according to those that call themselves experts on the subject.
After all, it was losing a large percentage of its scoring from last season, four senior starters and four other players that transferred out of the program. It was also going to have a lot of unknowns coming into this season which included five freshmen and two transfers.
So with all of the turnover and only three guys who saw significant minutes returning, it appeared things were going to be a little rough for the Illini this season. The general consensus seemed to be that they would probably struggle to reach 20 wins and certainly weren't going to be an NCAA tournament team.
Well, apparently John Groce and his boys didn't get the memo that they weren't supposed to be any good because the Fighting Illini are off to a 13-2 start and are currently ranked 23rd in the country.
The Illini ended their four-year drought against Missouri in the annual Braggin Rights game and could arguably be 15-0 if it could have held on to second half leads against Georgia Tech and a tough Oregon team.
In other words, the Fighting Illini are for real folks.
The team currently stands at 2-0 in the Big Ten heading into Wednesday night's showdown with the fourth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, and while it certainly will be tough to come away with a victory, it's hard to doubt this group right now.
One certainty is that no matter who or where this team plays, it will battle to the end, and that says a lot about a group that hasn't been together very long.
It all starts with head coach John Groce. From his first day on the job, Groce has stressed the ideas of toughness and togetherness to his players and it seems to be paying off. This group isn't the most talented and it doesn't shoot the ball exceptionally well, but it just finds ways to grind out wins.
Heading into Wednesday night's contest with Wisconsin, the Illini are currently shooting 44 percent from the field (ninth in Big Ten) and 32 percent from beyond the arc (11th in Big Ten), but they have won 13 out of 15 games because it is a team that can defend the basketball and a team that will play hard for 40 minutes.
It may sound silly because every team should play hard for 40 minutes, but that's certainly not the case.
The Illini are scoring 72.3 points per game (10th in Big Ten), while only giving up 61.5 a game (third in the Big Ten), but to be honest there isn't any one area where this team is exceptionally strong. If you look at the numbers, you wouldn't be all that impressed. It is a solid rebounding team, but not great. It doesn't block a ton of shots or get a lot of steals or really even distribute the ball that efficiently.
But what this team does do well is win, which I believe is ultimately the goal if I'm not mistaken. The question would seem to be, how is this team winning?
After their Big Ten opener in which they outlasted Indiana 83-80 in overtime, Indiana head coach Tom Crean praised Groce and the Illini by saying the following:
What Illinois does, what they do as well as any team I’ve seen all year, is in order to win, you’ve got to get 70 percent of the 50-50 balls in a game, it’s a sign of where they are as a team and as a program. You watch Illinois, they pride themselves on it; you see it. They play with great toughness and they play with great togetherness. They’re a very, very hard team to defend. They’re very hard to score against. John is one of the best coaches in the country. They’re gonna be really good for a long time.
That pretty much says it all. And that isn't to say that Illinois doesn't have talented players on their roster because they have a lot of talent and possibly one of the best players in the conference in Rayvonte Rice.
Rice is currently leading the Big Ten in scoring at 18.7 points per game, the top 20 in rebounding (5.8 per game) and the top 10 in steals (1.3 per game).
The guy can flat out play and what is most noticeable about him is his toughness. He relentlessly attacks the rim and is a fearless competitor, which is not a quality that you can teach and is something that Illinois teams have lacked in recent years. He really exemplifies the type of player that Groce loves and has become the go-to-guy for this Illinois team.
However, Rice is not alone. Point guard Tracy Abrams is about as tough as they come and senior forward Joseph Bertrand has started to play more aggressively. One thing about Bertrand is that he wants to dunk on just about anyone and everyone and he isn't afraid to try. This aggressive attitude seems to have spread throughout the team and even the freshmen play with a chip on their shoulder.
When you watch an Illinois basketball game you will see a team that competes from start to finish and that's really all you can ask for.
Groce has been quoted several times this season as saying he has a team full of "tough dudes" who love to compete and it certainly looks that way. They play extremely hard on defense and go after every loose ball like it's the last possession.
After the Indiana game, Groce made a comment that sums up his philosophy. He said, "The mindset when you come here to play is everyone is expected to defend and rebound. No one gets a free pass. It doesn’t matter how good you are on offense.”
This team still has a long road ahead in the Big Ten and will no doubt have some rough patches, but it would appear that it has found a formula for success. It has an outstanding young coach in Groce, a star player who can close out games in Rice, and a roster full of tough dudes that play together and just find ways to win.
The Illini certainly have the look of an NCAA tournament team and one that most other teams may not want to see come March.
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