CHAMPAIGN – There wasn’t much question whether Illinois would make the NCAA Tournament, but it was still a relief for John Groce when Greg Gumbel announced the Illini as the No. 7 seed in the East region.
“I think this is the world’s greatest tournament. For our guys to have a chance to participate in it, we are very blessed,” the Illini head coach said. “[The team] has had this goal since I first met them…they had to grind it out and be really tough at times when others may have doubted them, that was a great lesson for them.”
As a seven seed, Illinois does not have an easy first matchup. Awaiting them in Austin is Colorado (21-11, 10-8 PAC 12), whom Groce does not have a high degree of familiarity with, but knows will present a defensive challenge for his team.
“We’ve got a lot to do to learn as much as we can about Colorado,” he said. “When I think of their team I think of discipline and defending. They’re in the top 30 in the country defensively, so it’s going to be a great challenge.”
On the defensive end, the Buffaloes present a strong test in the form of Andre Roberson, who has averaged 11.3 rebounds per game this season. Roberson is also one of four players to average double digits in scoring. Forward Josh Scott (10.3 points per game) and guards Askia Booker (12.4) and Spencer Dinwiddie (15.6) will no doubt make things difficult for the Illini.
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Senior guard Brandon Paul said the most important thing for Illinois in their first game was to follow their game plan and stifle Colorado’s scorers.
“We have to guard. We’ve been getting better every game and putting together two halves is something we have to do,” Paul said. “Just coming out with enthusiasm and energy will help us.”
Fellow senior D.J. Richardson echoed his counterpart’s sentiments and added that Groce’s ability to let the guards play has been a key to Illinois’ success this year. Richardson and his fellow seniors have experience in the tournament, having last made it to the dance two years ago. He believes his team’s experience and desire will help make Illinois dangerous.
“Two years ago we got one win in the NCAA tournament, hopefully we can go to Texas on Friday and get some more wins,” he said. “We’ve been an up-and-down team, but we’ve been pretty good on neutral courts. We’re 5-2 and hopefully we can keep that going and end the season on a good note.”
The season started well for Illinois, with 12 consecutive wins including victories over Butler for the Maui Invitational title and Gonzaga in the Kennel. On the back of their strong start the Illini climbed as high as 10th in national polls, however, the beginning of Big Ten play quickly halted the team’s run as one of the nation’s best.
Except for a convincing 74-55 win over Ohio State (then ranked No. 8) on Jan. 5, Illinois endured a miserable start to conference play. The Illini went 2-7 in the first month, losing by more than seven points in each game. Things turned around on Feb. 7, however, as the Illini overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to knock-off top-ranked Indiana, 74-72, on a last-second layup by Tyler Griffey.
The win over Indiana was the start of a five-game win streak for Illinois, pulling the team back to .500 in conference play. The team would finish the year 22-12 and 8-10 after another last second victory, their second win against Minnesota this year, and a loss to the Hoosiers in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Playing in the Big Ten could prove to be a huge benefit for the Illini, however. Widely considered one of the best conferences in the nation, the Big Ten received seven bids this season, the second most of any league. Groce said Illinois’ schedule was great tourney preparation.
“We’ve seen a lot of different styles, a lot of great environments, a lot of great basketball teams,” he said. “Our schedule prepared us to have seen about everything we can see.”
Illinois’ strength of schedule, No. 8, is one of the best in the nation and after the conference tournament, Illinois’ RPI climbed to .5925, No. 39 in the nation. The Illini posted a combined record of 4-5 against other teams in the RPI top 25. Wins against number one seeds Gonzaga (7th in RPI) and Indiana (8th in RPI) were likely key factors considered by the NCAA selection committee.
Those wins also took a little bit of mystery out of selection Sunday for Illinois, but that didn’t dampen the team’s spirit. Sam McLaurin, a graduate transfer, will be playing in his first NCAA tourney. He said the feeling of being selected was like no other.
“I was so happy, like a kid in a candy store. I’ve been in a couple of NITs, so I’ve done a couple of NIT selection shows but those aren’t as fun,” the forward said with a laugh.
Despite the excitement of the tourney bid, Illinois is ready for action.
“This is what we worked for, to be in the tournament, and now that its here I’m going to make the most of it,” Paul said.