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            John Groce has received a $200,000 raise that brings his annual salary to $1.6 million and a one-year extension to his contract, which now runs through the 2017-18 season, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced Saturday.

            ``We are pleased to extend John Groce's contract by a year and reward him for an outstanding job in his first season at Illinois,'' Thomas said. ``The arrow is definitely pointing up for Fighting Illini basketball, and this helps solidify the commitment by both the university and John to continue moving the program to a championship level.''

            Groce guided Illinois to a 23-13 record, capped by a victory in the NCAA tournament. The Illini began the season with 12 straight wins, highlighted by the school's first Maui Invitational championship, and rose to No. 10 in the nation. After falling to 2-7 in Big Ten play, the Illini won five straight en route to an 8-10 league finish.

         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.''

 

NOTES:

         --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.

 

 

            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 ESPN.com. ``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.

 

 

ENDIT

 

 

          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.''

            The men's basketball schedule Illinois released Thursday will be a challenging one for new coach John Groce and his rebuilding roster.

            The nonconference schedule will be highlighted by trips to the Maui Invitational and Gonzaga, an ACC/Big Ten Challenge meeting with Georgia Tech in Champaign, the annual Braggin' Rights showdown with Missouri in St. Louis and Auburn at the United Center.

            The Illini will begin Big Ten play at Purdue on Jan. 2 and finish at Ohio State on March 10.  Their home single-play opponents are Indiana and Penn State. They will travel to Michigan State and Iowa for their only meetings with those schools.

            ``Our team will be tested early and often,'' Illinois head coach John Groce said. ``Our nonconference includes every situation imaginable. The journeys of November and December give us the opportunity to be prepared for an extremely competitive Big Ten race. There have been as many as six teams ranked in various preseason polls. With the tremendous players, coaches and home court environments in this league, we'll be challenged at the highest level throughout the conference season.''

 

 

2012-13 Illinois Basketball Schedule

DAY DATE OPPONENT LOCATION TIME TV

Monday Oct. 22 Orange & Blue Scrimmage Assembly Hall 7 p.m.

Saturday Oct. 27 Lewis (Exh.) Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Sunday Nov. 4 West Chester (Exh.) Assembly Hall TBA TBA

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Friday Nov. 9 Colgate Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Monday Nov. 12 St. Francis (N.Y.) Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Friday Nov. 16 at Hawaii Honolulu, Hawaii TBA

Monday Nov. 19 vs. USC % Lahaina, Hawaii 11 p.m. ESPN2

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. Texas/Chaminade % Lahaina, Hawaii 9:30 p.m./4 p.m. ESPN2

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA % Lahaina, Hawaii TBA TBA

Sunday Nov. 25 Gardner Webb Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Wednesday Nov. 28 Georgia Tech # Assembly Hall 8 p.m. ESPN2

Tuesday Dec. 4 Western Carolina Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Saturday Dec. 8 at Gonzaga Spokane, Wash. TBA TBA

Tuesday Dec. 11 Norfolk State Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Sunday Dec. 16 Eastern Kentucky Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Saturday Dec. 22 vs. Missouri * St. Louis, Mo. (Scottrade Center) TBA TBA

Saturday Dec. 29 vs. Auburn Chicago, Ill. (United Center) TBA TBA

Wednesday Jan. 2 at Purdue West Lafayette, Ind. TBA TBA

Saturday Jan. 5 Ohio State Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Wednesday Jan. 9 Minnesota Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Saturday Jan. 12 at Wisconsin Madison, Wis. TBA TBA

Thursday Jan. 17 Northwestern Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Tuesday Jan. 22 at Nebraska Lincoln, Neb. TBA TBA

Sunday Jan. 27 Michigan Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Thursday Jan. 31 at Michigan State East Lansing, Mich. TBA TBA

Sunday Feb. 3 Wisconsin Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Thursday Feb. 7 Indiana Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Sunday Feb. 10 at Minnesota Minneapolis, Minn. TBA TBA

Wednesday Feb. 13 Purdue Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Sunday Feb. 17 at Northwestern Evanston, Ill. TBA TBA

Thursday Feb. 21 Penn State Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Sunday Feb. 24 at Michigan Ann Arbor, Mich. TBA TBA

Saturday March 2 Nebraska Assembly Hall TBA TBA

Tuesday March 5 at Iowa Iowa City, Iowa TBA TBA

Sunday March 10 at Ohio State Columbus, Ohio TBA TBA

Thu.-Sun. March 14-17 Big Ten Tournament Chicago, Ill. (United Center)

Tue.-Wed. March 19-20 NCAA First Round Dayton, Ohio

Thu.-Sun. March 21-24 NCAA Second & Third Rounds TBA

Thu.-Sun. March 28-31 NCAA Regionals TBA

Sat. & Mon. April 6 & 8 NCAA Final Four Atlanta, Ga. (Georgia Dome)

% = EA SPORTS Maui Invitational

# = ACC/Big Ten Challenge

* = Bud Light Braggin' Rights

All times listed are Central.

All dates are subject to change.

Remaining times and television information will be released when available.

About the blogger

Herb Gould started with the Sun-Times in 1977 and has covered several teams, including the Blackhawks. He is a long-time beat reporter covering the Fighting Illini and the Big Ten for the Sun-Times.

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