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he won’t join you, beat him.
Butler’s Brad Stevens wasn’t interested in the Illinois job last spring after
VCU’s Shaka Smart expressed similar disinterest, athletic director Mike Thomas
turned to Ohio coach John Groce.
move was greeted with a lot of whining and yawning.
what happened? Fate put Groce and Stevens opposite each other in the
championship game of the Maui Invitational on Wednesday. All of a sudden, two
coaches who have been close friends since they worked together for Thad Matta
at Butler in 2000-01 had to try and beat other.
Illini prevailed with a 78-61 victory on Wednesday. They never trailed, and
they never trailed in in their first two Maui games, when they took down USC 94-64
and Chaminade 84-61.
immediate reward was hoisting the most prestigious early-season trophy in
“Unbelievable,” said senior Tyler Griffey, “I haven’t had this much fun playing
basketball in a long time.”
next accolade for their impressive 6-0 start, unless the voters went to bed
early this week, should be a top-25 ranking.
real prize, though, for getting their act together under Groce after losing 12
of their last 14 games last year might be the promise of continued fun.
looks like the new coach is even capable of silencing the yawners.
need to take a deep breath,” Groce told ESPN.com. “You see the names on that
trophy and it really puts it into perspective, the quality of this tournament.
The thing I was proudest of was our toughness. Whenever you play Butler, you
have to be tough.”
games does not make a season. The Illini learned that the hard way last year, when
they started 15-3 and finished 17-15.
there are a lot of reasons to think Groce and his players won’t let that
“Very rarely when you have a
new coach come in, do the pieces fit [so] well,” Stevens said. “It’s so perfect the way that
John likes to play and the way they spread the floor with four shooters and the
way that they can shoot the ball. Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack
Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”
a 6-9 power forward from suburban St. Louis, is a perfect example of that.
After scoring in double figures seven times in his first three years, he’s gone
for at least 10 points five times in Illinois’ first six games, including all
three Maui contests.
Griffey, who averaged 11.3 ppg in Maui, is the fourth option behind a stellar guard trio–Maui
Invitational MVP Brandon Paul (19.7), D.J. Richardson (12.7) and Tracy Abrams
important than scoring, the Illini are playing defense aggressively and Groce
is substituting freely to keep his players fresh.
“Do you envision sitting at 6-0?” said
Groce, who knows the season is just getting under way even though some fans and
media may be thinking the Illini already have arrived. “I’m a little different. I
focus on practice every day. We try to get better every day and let the results
take care of themselves.
No. 1 Indiana, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, No. 15 Michigan State,
Wisconsin and Minnesota all looking strong, it’s too still too early to pencil
in Illinois to what ought to be a tough Big Ten race.
it’s not too early to mark them down for a very interesting first season under Groce.