CHAMPAIGN — When coach John Groce’s basketball team takes the Assembly Hall court at 3 p.m., Sunday, an arena far from sold out will reverberate with a sound the University of Illinois campus has been craving.
It will be the loud noise of celebration, of pride, of grateful appreciation that a major Illini athletic team is giving those fans something to believe in.
Deprived of that feeling for so long on the football side of Kirby Ave., and tortured by underperforming basketball teams the past seven seasons, fans thirsty for a gulp of hope will be toasting a team that seems to be “all-in” on Groce’s aggressive system and that this past week raided the state of Hawaii for four victories and the championship trophy of the Maui Invitational.
I’m not the university’s marketing genius, but I’d recreate the Maui trophy presentation right before Sunday’s opening tipoff.
And if that’s making too much of an early-season achievement that will be forgotten by March, remember, this is a school that has been aching head-to-toe from a chronic case of underachievement.
Before the Hawaii trip, I tried to warn fans that adversity is coming, that this team will lose games, make mistakes and, yes, the second-guessers will somehow take Groce to task. It’s always that way.
But now that Illinois has shown it can deal with adversity (rallying from 16 down to win in overtime last Friday), it has a new challenge to confront.
“It is an extremely great start for our basketball team,” Groce said of his 6-0 squad after beating Butler 78-61 in the Maui title game. “But we have to make sure we do not eat the poisonous pill of success.”
It’s true, the Illini players could be feeling so good about themselves that they might forget the hustle and unselfishness that has made this team so much fun to watch. But Groce has already sounded that warning. “We are excited,” he said. “But we are not done.”
So far, the players seem to be buying whatever Groce is selling. The most important of Groce’s message is that “every day counts. Every practice, every game, every possession.” He has held them accountable, calling timeouts the minute intensity lapses.
A team with a new head coach can overachieve when the buy-in from individual players is validated with team success, and that’s the most important lesson Illinois learned in Hawaii.
The four seniors — who have only this final chance to excel in college — are leading the way.
Many will single out Maui MVP Brandon Paul, who has been terrific, or D.J. Richardson, who hit the memorable overtime shot last Friday, but I can’t get past the rebirth of Tyler Griffey.
A senior who could never quite win former coach Bruce Weber’s confidence and who therefore never had a consistent role, Griffey hinted as much before the season when he said Groce’s system was perfect for him.
After scoring 14 points including back-to-back 3s during a key second-half stretch against Butler, Griffey confirmed is feelngs.
“I haven’t had this much fun playing basketball in a long time,” he said.
Paul has much to prove, too. After his 43-point outburst against Ohio State last season, Paul and his teammates went into a death spiral. But he’s playing with a new lease on life, too, averaging 19.7 points a game to lead the quick start.
“We came out with the mindset that we wanted to prove ourselves, and I think we did that,” Paul said after dispatching a Butler team that had already toppled Marquette and No. 9 North Carolina. “But we’re in no shape to just stop right here.”
Illinois made an impression on Butler coach Brad Stevens.
“Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with them,” Stevens said.
A dose of reality is always in order and again it was Groce who said he would not let his players feel too satisfied.
“Our guys are humbled,” he said of the championship.
Gardner-Webb on Sunday, then Georgia Tech in Wednesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday night.
And looming Dec. 8 is a trip to 17th-ranked Gonzaga, projected by some to be a Final Four candidate.
Just as before, adversity awaits. But as opposed to past Illini teams, this group looks like it can deal with it.
Mark Tupper covers the University of Illinois for the JG-TC. Contact him at email@example.com or 217-421-7983.