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Illini off to hot start no one saw coming

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CHAMPAIGN – Last weekend, Illinois’ surprising unbeaten start was 4.4 seconds away from running head-on into a wall.

Gardner-Webb, an opponent any Big Ten school is expected to beat at home, was up by two with the clock winding down on the strength of a banked-in 3-pointer, the kind of good-grief shot that tells the opponent it just might not be their night.

A season ago, Illinois probably would have cracked under that pressure. That team – essentially the same group of players – lost 12 of its last 14, missed the NCAA tournament and saw its coach fired.

Not this time.

Senior forward Tyler Griffey, just a minute or so removed from a bad miss that could have drained his confidence, buried a long 3 for the win.

The Illini (8-0) woke up the next day ranked 22nd in the country. So far they’ve won the Maui Invitational title, blowing out Butler in the championship, and are averaging 11 3-pointers a game. That’s more than any team in the country, and this start is more than anyone expected after the big collapse.

What turned last year’s fragile team into this tough, hot-shooting bunch? Some point to the energetic, relentlessly upbeat new coach, John Groce.

“He’s a really, really positive guy, and I think his team feeds off of it,” said Gardner-Webb coach Chris Holtmann, who was a member of Groce’s staff at Ohio and both played in the early 1990s at tiny Taylor University in Indiana. “His kids are going to play with great confidence, they’re going to play really loose and aggressive, they’re going to be in attack mode.”

Griffey, a 6-foot-8 forward who has struggled the past three seasons to win and keep a place on the team, agrees.

“Positive encouragement goes a really long way,” he said. “He is very big on that.”

Teammate Brandon Paul, another senior and a big reason Illinois is hitting all those 3-pointers, said last season’s long, slow demolition is playing a role, too.

“We’ve been through a lot here. We have toughness in us and that allows us to finish games,” said Paul, who is averaging a team-leading 18.3 points a game and has hit 22 of his 53 3-pointers.

A 15-3 start last season included wins over two ranked teams, Gonzaga and Ohio State. But Illinois then had a head-scratching loss to Penn State, a defeat that started something rolling downhill that neither the players nor coach Bruce Weber could stop. Weber lost his job and Groce – after at least two higher-profile coaches said no – was hired.

Groce has gone to great lengths to say he won’t judge these players by that collapse. But he said he believes that what they went through is a source of strength.

“They’ve seen so much, these guys,” he said.

If Weber was the good-guy coach who slowly lost the team, Groce is the energetic newcomer who came to town to help them pick themselves up again. It isn’t just the positive approach, the players say. Groce said he’s tough on them, particularly Paul, when he needs to be.

“I was on him in the film session now. I mean, in was on him,” Groce said. “And that sends a message to the other guys – ‘Whoa, like man, he’s going at him, man, everybody’s held accountable around here.’ “

Paul and others said they enjoy the up-tempo style Groce preaches, too. He encourages them to push the ball up the floor, to take shots – a bunch of them, even if they miss.

D.J. Richardson, another senior guard who is the team’s leading rebounder and a hard worker on defense, has launched 62 3s, almost eight a game. Paul is averaging almost seven 3-point attempts a game.

“I just feel like in this offense, it fits my game a lot more than the past offenses have,” Paul said. “I think everyone has the confidence to play the game.”

Even at 8-0, though, everything isn’t perfect.

Tracy Abrams, the sophomore point guard who Groce figures will run his offense, is struggling and has been on the bench when the past two games were on the line. Paul, for the most part, has had the ball in his absence with super-sub Joseph Bertrand taking Abrams’ spot in the lineup.

The Illini also are weak inside. They have been outrebounded even in two of their biggest wins, over Butler and a comeback over Hawaii. While scoring 79.5 a game, they’re getting only 26 of those in the paint.

And the schedule hasn’t included a ranked team yet. That’ll come soon, with No. 12 Gonzaga on Dec. 8, No. 16 Missouri on Dec. 22 and Big Ten play to follow. Five other conference teams are in the Top 25, including No. 1 Indiana and two others in the top five.

What happens if long jumpers stop falling, the way they did last season?

Groce said he’s working on the answer, starting with better rebounding. He said that’s at the top of a long list of things he needs to address in practice, something the Illini haven’t had enough time for with their hectic early schedule. Not many teams have played anything close to eight games so far.

And Groce said he’s not reading much into the early success or the ranking.

“What’s it mean in terms of the long-term mission that we’re on to try to be the best basketball team that we can be in February and March?” he asked. “Not a whole lot.”

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