Groce guides Illini to Maui title

SHARE Groce guides Illini to Maui title
SHARE Groce guides Illini to Maui title

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If

he won’t join you, beat him.

When

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.

That

move was greeted with a lot of whining and yawning.

So

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.

The

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.

Their

immediate reward was hoisting the most prestigious early-season trophy in

college basketball.

“Unbelievable,” said senior Tyler Griffey, “I haven’t had this much fun playing

basketball in a long time.”

Their

next accolade for their impressive 6-0 start, unless the voters went to bed

early this week, should be a top-25 ranking.

The

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.

It

looks like the new coach is even capable of silencing the yawners.

“I

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.”

Six

games does not make a season. The Illini learned that the hard way last year, when

they started 15-3 and finished 17-15.

But

there are a lot of reasons to think Groce and his players won’t let that

happen.

“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.”

Griffey,

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.

And

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

(12).

More

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.

With

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.

But

it’s not too early to mark them down for a very interesting first season under Groce.

ENDIT

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