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

Groce guides Illini to Maui title

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            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.






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This page contains a single entry by Herb Gould published on November 22, 2012 10:46 AM.

Illini rout USC in Maui; Chaminade next was the previous entry in this blog.

Live-blog: Illinois vs Northwestern is the next entry in this blog.

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