As good as Illinois has been during an unbeaten start to the season, doubts still lingered about this team.
The Fighting Illini had won its first nine games last season as well, but the strong start didn’t mean much in the long run of a 17-15 campaign.
But this team seems different, maybe not to the point where it can win the Big Ten, but perhaps to the point where it will be good enough to finish in the upper half of the league and play in the NCAA tournament.
Consider what it did against Gonzaga Saturday night on the road. Playing against the No. 10 team in the nation, a team that could very well make a run at the Final Four, the Illini proved itself on a big stage and came away with an 85-74 win.
From a rankings standpoint, it’s a mild upset.
After all, the Illini came in ranked No. 13 in the country, although I’m not sure if a lot of people believed Illinois was worthy of that lofty position in the poll.
But they are now.
Brandon Paul helped make this win possible. He once again played like the veteran that he is and torched the Bulldogs for 35 points.
Paul drilled five treys, hit 10 free throws, dished out three assists, blocked two shots and tallied three steals. Not a bad night at all, especially on a night when the Illini silenced a few more critics.
“A lot of people doubted us,” Paul said in a post-game press conference. “We came into the game as underdogs. We love that stuff.”
Indeed, the Illini have thrived in the underdog role, defying those who dare to bet against them.
Tracy Abrams added 14 points in the victory as Illinois is 10-0 under first-year head coach John Groce.
Groce has this team playing good basketball. It plays hard and plays smart. Even when Illinois trailed Gonzaga 31-20 in the opening half, the game on the cusp of getting out of hand, the Illini didn’t quit and tied the game at 41-41 at the half.
“I thought our toughness and togetherness was exemplary,” Groce said in a post-game press conference.
Toughness and unity will take a team a long way. It’s taken the Illini to 10 wins and the potential for more success is within their reach.
Brian Lester is a featured Big Ten columnist and college basketball writer for Rant Sports. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association as well.
Follow him on Twitter @BLester1993 or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.