Thursday, November 22, 2012

Maui Wowie

John Groce
AP Photo/Eugene Tanner

Well Illini fans, John Groce and his boys from Champaign-Urbana gave everyone something to be thankful for this Holiday season. 

An Illini men's basketball team that puts a great product on the court.  And boy did they ever deliver!

In what turned out to be a tremendous Hawaiian vacation for these Illini ballers it has also given credence to the hiring of John Groce as head basketball coach.

The Illini, lead by Maui Invitational Tournament MVP Brandon Paul (pictured right), they went out to prove something to everyone that the basketball culture in Orange Krush country is going to be different. 

They started the week with a heart stopping win against Hawaii that D.J. Richardson saved with a three pointer in the corner at the buzzer in overtime.  They were down in that game by 16 and fought back never giving up and showing great toughness and grit. 

That win and in that fashion almost seemed to jump start their run going forward in Maui. 

They just blew doors off of the Univeristy of Spoiled Children (USC) with deft shooting and attacking defense.  They really never knew what hit them. 

The were then given a gift in playing the upset minded hosts, Chaminade, who took out a very young Texas squad the night before.  This was again no match for this changed Illini team as they again never trailed going away. 

The win earned them a chance at a championship and to get it would have to battle one of the best coached teams in the country.  Not to mention beat one of John Groce's best friends in Butler's Brad Stevens. 

The up tempo offense style and ball hawking defense smothered the majority of the Bulldogs and again the Illini with a balanced scoring attack never trailed and were crowned champion.

I am very proud to be an Illini fan today and will tell you I think the Illini have great things to come under John Groce.  Having been a season ticket holder with Illini men's basketball for many years I have seen the Illini in many systems and coaching styles. 

After watching this tournament run I have to believe prospective recruits are going to want to play in this system.  He lets his players play and if you are open to shoot without consequence.  They play in a normal rhythm and don't have that voice in the back of their head saying no. 

This was really the case the last few years under Bruce Weber.  His teams would hold the ball for 30 seconds of the shot clock and then scramble at times to get a decent shot off.  He would bark at them and it was not being received well by the Illini players. 

Groce is just the opposite.  He plays a controlled yet free brand of basketball.  It reminds me of when you are on the playground or in the gym playing pickup games and when you want to take a shot you do it without a feeling of being reprimanded. 

Players on this team, like Paul, Richardson, Tracy Abrams, Tyler Griffey, Joseph Bertrand, Myke Henry, all have a different look about them.  They look as if a load has been lifted from their shoulders and they can be themselves and play basketball.

There can't be enough said about a stress free feeling when you are playing a sport and wanting to do so at a high level.  These guys seem to have an extra pep in their step.  Tracy Abrams, (13), has grown leaps in one year and is a leader on this team.  I can't wait to see more from this group. 

The Illini seem tougher, more aggressive, and have the horses to run this style.

They do need to improve in several areas so I am not drinking the Kool-Aid just yet. 

Teams that live by the three also die by the three.  They will need to develop some semblance of an inside game and definitely rebound better as those shots won't fall like they were raining down in Maui all year long.  They will also need to work on driving to the basket more too to open up the outside for their great shooters. 

It will also be a change when league play begins as the Big Ten is loaded this season with quality teams top to bottom like top ranked Indiana and #4 Michigan.  It will be a heavyweight fight night in and night out during the conference season.   

I hope Brad Steven's is right when he was quoted after their loss last night as saying, "Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”

It will take continued improvement and hard work and also a little luck to build on what they have started.

The foundation has been laid for what could be a very surprising and successful season in Illini land.

But as John Groce said after they were crowned Maui champions, "We’re excited. We’re not done. I think it’s a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better."

The talent is there on this team and with the tremendous inroads Groce has made with recruiting in such a small window of time the arrow is pointing skyward again.  He is selling this program and his style of play and it is paying off with a very good recruiting class as well, Rivals ranks them in at #10.  He has signed kids from Chicago like Jaylon Tate (blue) and Kendrick Nunn (orange) out of powerhouse Simeon.  He has grabbed a player out of Ohio in big man Maverick Morgan and now the East Coast with late bloomer Austin Colbert.    

He is building relationships across the country.  He wants to be a national brand.

He may not have won the popular vote when the Illini were searching for their new head basketball coach, but he has shown to this point that popular opinion can be wrong.

And in my mind I am glad they were.

Get out those sunglasses Illini fans because their future looks bright!     


  1. You forgot to mention that Weber is 5-0 at K-State

    You didn't mention that Weber won 58% of the Big Ten games he coached and took a team to the Final Four.

    Lou Henson won 57% of his games, did not go to a Final Four, got the team in trouble with the NCAA and lasted 21 years.

    I don't know if Groce is a good coach or not. We will find out when he plays in the Big Ten, and the three point opportunities will be taken away and the team will have to depend on its questionable inside game.

    I do know that Weber is a very good coach, and has a much brighter future at K-State then Groce has at the U of I.

  2. Mr. Basketball...check your facts. You see, there was this team in 88-89 nicknamed the "Flyin' Illini". I think if you do some research, you'll see that Lou Henson led that team to the Seattle Final Four that season where they lost a heart-breaker to the eventual National Champion Michigan Wolverines. Just FYI.

  3. Sir with all due respect, you lost credibility with the fact that you forgot about Lou Henson did go to the Final Four in 1989 with the FLYING ILLINI and also took a New Mexico State team in 1974 to the Final Four. Also, in your arguement, regarding Bruce Weber, did you watch his teams and the players the last few years of his tenure? I understand Bruce has K-State at 5-0 going against Michigan in the Preseason NIT but he is starting the same way he did at Illinois. He has a stocked group of veteran players and he will do well this year and probably next year. It is his inability to get quality players and relate to the the players of today. If he couldn't do it at Illinois what makes you think he will bring talent to K-State? I like Bruce Weber as a person and was glad he was there in '05 to take that group of D-Will, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. His system worked with that group of elite talent. After that it was down hill fast. I just know that this group of players that Weber had last year with a lottery pick didn't do jack. Groce has them looking confident and they look like the weight of the world has been lifted. You can see it in their face and body language. I also understand the Big Ten is loaded as I had mentioned. As of this Muai tournament they look good and look like a team that will need to be dealt with going forward. I also listed their shortcommings. I think Groce will have a much brighter future because of what he has shown already with the same group of guys that were here last year. Weber will have a bright future also but it will either be in a lesser league like Missouri Valley or as an analyst at ESPN after his stint doesn't work out in Manhattan, Kansas. Thanks again for the comments and your continued reading of my blog.

  4. I meant, of course, that Henson's team did not play in the championship game in the Final Four, as did Weber's team.

    I hope that Groce does well with Illinois, but I have seen these fast start with Illinois before the Big Ten season begins too many times, and I know how the movie ends

    Always enjoy your articles, keep up the great work.

  5. I think "Mr. Basketball" may be on to something:

    Illinois over Gardner-Webb, 63-62 on their home floor.

    If Weber were still coaching Illinois the critics would bury him.

    Hawaii, Charminade, Butler, Gardner-Webb, what's next, the Little Sisters of the Blind?

    1. First of all, lets look at the big picture. I wasn't shocked by the sluggish performance by the Illini after the return flight and pure high from the Maui trip. The same went with their lackluster performance opening up with Hawaii. Long flights and time changes really effect play and performance. The bottom line is they were able to scratch out a win. Ugly or not, you play to win the game. It would have been a horrific loss but they made a play when they needed it. Seniors step up in those situations. As for if Weber was here he has a history and it would have been handled differently. Groce has some room to figure it out and to this point his teams are fighting and not giving up like in years past. As for your last comment about their opponents...You play who is on your schedule. Had Chaminade not beaten down Texas would you feel the same? Butler beat North Carolina and Marquette so you are diminishing their ability too? I wouldn't be so hasty to lump teams by their "lack of name" and look at them as a whole and your feelings might be less pessimistic. The jury is still out on John Groce. The jury has already been decided on Weber.

  6. If Illinois had beaten North Carolina or Marquette, I would feel a lot different. But, they did not, could not and will not.

    The seniors at Illinois, are what they are. And, what they are is what they were last year and the years before.

    Last year things did not go well, and they sulked and gave up. That is not all on the Coach. And, it won't be all on Groce when the same thing happens this year.

    There is an old saying in basketball: NEVER believe what you see in preseason, good or bad.

  7. A different Anonymous.

    Weber sniffers need to let it go! He's gone! He's better off in Manhattan, KS. Go look at Kansas State blogs and enjoy yourself!

    As for the 2012-13 Illini basketball team, good start! They are fun too watch. They are not afraid of making a mistake. They play a nice style that has attracted recruits.

    They will struggle in Big 10 play. This team does not rebound well and they live and die with the 3-pointer. I'm thinking 7th or 8th place in the Big 10 this year.

  8. I don't understand where your hostility comes from regarding this issue. I am starting to think you might be a close friend or relative of Bruce Weber. I stated before that I like Weber for what he does for college basketball and the Coaches V. Cancer fund raising. He is a wonderful human being. His time here ended badly. That is the coaching profession and path he chose in life. Most coaches are hired to be fired. I just don't personally like him as a coach in this day and age. And to say Illinois wouldn't and couldn't beat those teams (UNC/Marq) is absurd. I have been around long enough to see when players respond to certain coaches and when they don't. How they ended last year was pathetic but he lost the team and didn't do enough to get them back. Good debate back and forth. I love talking sports and even though I think I am always right my wife and kids are there to tell me I am full of it. Keep the comments coming and I respect everyone's opinions.
    P.S. If you want to leave a comment with your name and not just anonymous click on comment as and choose name/url and type in your name. Thanks again.

  9. I don’t have a dog in this fight since I am not an Illinois Basketball fan, or fan of anything Illinois. But, I am a sports fan and watch the Illini play on occasion.

    I didn’t see anything particularly hostile about the observations of “anonymous”. I do think calling someone a “sniffer” is out of line.

    Here is the point: there was a time, and not that long ago, when fans supported their coaches through thick and thin. Consider Lou Henson, Jud Heathcoat, Dean Smith, and others of that era. These coaches had good teams, but they had some bad ones too.

    Since we are specifically talking about the Illini, Henson most certainly had difficulty with certain players and even certain teams as a whole at times (remember the 91-92 team?). But, he wasn’t fired because he had a down period. If Weber were from that era, and in a way he was as Gene Keady’s assistant, he would have continued as Coach and most probably had good teams in time.

  10. Just a quick note about Saturday night...Groce's Illini were down in a hostile environment, Then Kennel, and were able to overcome that early deficit and get a signiture win for this season. Brandon Paul continues to play like a potential All-American and again these Illini are proving skeptics wrong. I really like what I have seen thus far. Can't wait for the rest of the year. I will again say Big Ten is loaded and the Illini will need to shore up interior play for any possible future good will. Go Illini!