A week ago I wrote about how I thought Illinois was a good team, but I didn’t think they could be a great team. I knew they had talent, leftover from Bruce Weber’s time, and I knew John Groce was a good coach. But, now I do think they will be a factor for the Big Ten Title. I am not saying they are the favorite, but they are definitely a team to worry about. Illinois is now 10-0 and about to be a top 10 team int he country.
Last night’s win over Gonzaga was enormous. The Illini beat no. 10 Gonzaga, on the road, 85-74 in a statement to the rest of the country. Illinois came back from a fast Gonzaga start, and ended up dominating the second half. In doing so Groce’s team achieved one of the most difficult tasks in college basketball, winning at Gonzaga.
Brandon Paul was spectacular. The senior guard was unstoppable, scoring 35 points on 10-16 shots. Paul knocked down threes during Illinois’ big second half push. His scoring ability took a close game and knocked it wide open, stunning Gonzaga. He was doing it inside and out, with 5 threes and 10-11 from the free throw line. Paul was able to attack as he chose, making impressive driving layups, putting the defense on its toes. Paul is averaging 20 points a game, reviving his NBA draft stock and leading Illinois back in to the top group of teams.
The biggest difference this season, besides the change in attitude, has been the presence of strong role players. Last season, there were many times where it seemed everyone was just in it for themselves. They were just hoisting up jumpers, with no one really taking charge. This year, the role players are stepping up. Paul, though he is playing really well, does not have to do everything. Guys like Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Tyler Griffey have been much improved from last season. It is not just the Paul and DJ Richardson show, but a full cast of strong players.
The fact that all of these players were here for last year’s miserable season is a huge sign of the difference Groce is making. He took a 17-15 team, minus a lottery pick (Myers Leonard), and has them undefeated at 10-0.
I underestimated the the value of the players loving and playing hard for their new coach. Brandon Paul put it best, saying, “We want to play hard for him and he does a great job coaching us.”
Illinois has the same team as last season for the most part, but boy do they look different.
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