Chicago Sun-Times
With Sun-Times sports reporter Herb Gould

November 2012 Archives

         CHAMPAIGN--After Illinois' narrow escape vs. Gardner-Webb on Sunday, John Groce wanted to see better toughness when the No. 22 Illini took on Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

         The Illini showed toughness all right. Despite scuffling offensively for long stretches, they rallied for a 75-62 victory on Wednesday to improve to 8-0.

         ``If you had said, `Would you predict 8-0?' I probably wouldn't have been bold enough to do that,'' Groce said. ``But our guys have been resilient. We've been popped in the mouth two or three times and come back in games and made big plays down the stretch. Hopefully we continue to do that.''

         The leader of this comeback was redshirt junior Joseph Bertrand, who put on an offensive show, including a Nightly Top 10 hang-time drive to the basket that helped Illinois stay unbeaten. The 6-6 sixth man scored 10 straight points, lifting Illinois from a 58-54 deficit with 7:15 left to a 64-58 lead with 5:25 left against the Yellow Jackets (4-2).

         ``[Bertrand] brings energy off the bench,'' Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. ``He's a great athlete--and he's just streaky enough to be dangerous.''

         Bertrand and Brandon Paul finished with 15 points apiece, and Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson each had 14 points for Illinois.

         Illinois' victory allowed the Big Ten to salvage a 6-6 tie in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Midwesterners were 4-2 on Tuesday, but surprising losses by No. 13 Michigan State in Miami and by Wisconsin at home to Virginia were costly in their bid for a fourth straight Challenge title.

         The ACC now leads 10-3-1 in the series.

         Leading 36-35 after a see-saw first half, Illinois seemed to take control at the start of the second half. It made its first three shots, including three-balls by Richardson and Griffey, to go ahead 44-37.

         But Georgia Tech took charge and led 58-54 with 7:15 left. That's when Illinois, led by Bertrand, answered with a 21-4 barrage to end the game.

         ``Until you get to know him, Joe can come off like a quiet guy,'' Groce said. ``But Joe has big-time energy. Joe loves to compete. And tonight he competed. He really ignited the 21-4 run.''



         --John Groce's 8-0 start is the second best by a first-year coach at Illinois. Fletcher Lane started 12-0 in 1907-08, his only season as Illini coach.

         --Illinois is 7-1 vs. Georgia Tech, including a 103-92 double overtime victory on Jan. 22, 1989. That  was the only other time Tech has come to Champaign. With that victory, Illinois improved to 17-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation the next day.


Neil Hayes, Herb Gould, and others share their thoughts on the Illinois-Northwestern game.


            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 ``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.






          Sharing the ball when it had it and playing lockdown defense when it didn't, Illinois opened a 57-26 halftime lead and wheeled past USC 94-64 in its Maui Invitational opener on Monday.

          ``The first half was about as good as we defended this season,'' coach John Groce said. ``We were really unselfish in the first half, really shared the ball.  We've got a lot of guys that can score and shoot the ball, so it's hard to key on one guy.  [But] I thought the whole deal was key by our defense.''

            Brandon Paul (26 points) led the way as Illinios (4-0) shot nearly 69 percent in the first half against the Trojans (2-1). D.J. Richardson (13), Tracy Abrams (11) and Tyler Griffey (10) also were in double figures

            Next up for Illinois is Chaminade (9:30 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN2). The Division II tournament host  upset Texas 86-73 in its opener. The Silverswords are 7-76 since the tournament begain in 1984.

            A win in that game would put the Illini in the Maui championship game against Butler or No. 9 North Carolina, the tourney favorite.

            Illinois lost the Maui championship game to Arizona in 2000, its highest finish in the prestigious early-season tournament. The Illini finished third in 1987 and 2007, their other Maui appearances.

The USC start was very different from Illinois' first island game. It  trailed Hawaii 44-28 early in the second half on Friday before surviving 78-77 in overtime on D.J. Richardson's three-pointer at the buzzer.

``We were disappointed we didn't get off to a better start Friday,'' Groce said. ``I thought the start to the [USC] game was critical.  I thought we came out and got off to a great start, had a lot of energy, and really moved the ball.  It was a freeflowing first half.  I thought the tempo was to our liking.  We got the ball up and down the floor, and guys made plays.''

            Some big noise about the Big Ten came out of the East on Saturday. Multiple sources, including and, reported that Maryland is in serious discussions regarding joining the conference of Legends and Leaders.

            Rutgers also could join the Big Ten as a 14th member, said, adding that an announcement could come as early as Monday.

            Efforts to confirm the reports through numerous Big Ten sources were unsuccessful. That in itself might be a clue: With no one willing knock down the expansion news, that could mean there's substance to it.

            It makes sense from the standpoint that the Next Big Thing in college sports--a handful of ``super conferences''--is getting nearer and nearer.

            This looks like a response to Notre Dame's decision to align with the ACC. Adding Maryland and Rutgers would give the Big Ten a serious television profile in the New York and Washington markets.

            And as the Pac-12's recent television machinations show--a reported 12-year, $3 billion TV contract with ESPN and Fox--the sky's the limit for the Big Ten, which has a bigger upside than the West Coast league.

            In a measure of how big the stakes are, Maryland, which recently dropped seven sports because of budget problems, is said to be interested in joining the Big Ten even though it would be required to pay a $50 million exit fee to the ACC.

            Sources told that Maryland president Wallace Loh has been handling the negotiations and Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson has briefed key staffers on the situation.

         As boggling as it may seem, the addition of Maryland and Rutgers might only be a stepping stone to a 16-school conference. Speculation has grown that the college-sports landscape will evolve into four 16-team super leagues in the future.

         It's possible the future is nearer than people thought.


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