The Illinois Illini have been off to a great start this season. In the opening of the John Groce era, the Illini have been perfect, at 8-0. Bruce Weber’s leftover players are playing really well under their new coach. They won the Maui Invitational, and beat a good Butler team.
This looks like a completely different team from last season. Through just eight games, they look looser and more aggressive. A major problem at the end of the Weber era was the lack of focus from the stars. One of the last straws for Weber was his statement last February, “Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year.”
That was when it was clear that Weber had lost his team. It was not a problem of a lack of talent. It was not even that Weber was a bad coach. He is a very good one, anyone inside college basketball will tell you that. It had just gotten to the point where there was a disconnect between the players and Weber. His being on the hot seat led to the team having to play not to lose, which never works.
That is why what is largely the same team as last year is doing so well. Guys like Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tyler Griffey, Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand are playing really well, showing the talent has been there. The difference is Groce, a much calmer coach. He allows them to play a more up and down game. This gives his talented group more freedom, unlike Weber’s restrictive offense. They have had some luck, especially in their win over Gardner-Webb, but any successful season requires some luck.
Is this terrific play going to last all season?
Probably not. Illinois has been shooting 42% from three point territory. That just does not seem like a sustainable statistic. They have some good shooters, and they shoot a lot of threes, but 42% is really high. They are bound to have games where nothing is falling from deep and will have to create inside shots. That is where Myers Leonard was the go-to guy last season. He had a few games where he was unstoppable in the post last year. They do not appear to have that post presence that would be huge in conference play.
Also, the difficulty of schedule is about to pick up. They travel to no. 12 Gonzaga next Saturday, in a really tough game. Gonzaga is terrific at home, and they will be heavy favorites. They lead the country in field goal percentage, and have surpassed 100 points twice in seven games.
Illinois also travels to fast-paced no. 16 Missouri, the next Saturday,in a rivalry game. These two games will be huge tests for Groce’s team. If they can win one of these two games they should have a lot of momentum and confidence going in to conference play.
Illinois is now a quarter of the way through the season and look fantastic. They look loose and excited about their new coach. It is too early to say if they “are back” yet. But, Illinois fans should be excited about this team. Before the season I said their season would follow one of two paths. The veterans from Weber’s tenure would either not buy in to the new coach Groce, like what happened with the Illini football team, or the change of leadership would excite a talented core. The latter happened, and the Illini are playing well. Will they tear through the Big Ten? No, but they should be in the top half of the conference and an NCAA Tournament team. Groce has them playing fun basketball, and the result is wins.