CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – No suit is safe with this start. Think John Groce is intense? Think his historic early run at Illinois is no accident because of an attitude that’s as active as a pot of boiling water?
You haven’t seen half of it. Well, if you’ve seen it all, hope you covered your eyes.
“The most valuable lesson I learned tonight is to wear dark underwear,” said Groce, after the Fighting Illini beat Western Carolina 72-64 on Tuesday to improve to 9-0, the best start for a first-year Illinois coach since 1907-08. “That’s important, because I ripped the bottom of my pants out trying to get into the defensive stance.”
That’s Groce. Energetic. A crack of thunder – usually minus the full moon. He’s a man, 41 years old, who will spill his emotion on Assembly Hall’s orange paint and laugh about it later.
Results so far warrant a stitch job for his slacks. He’s the first Illinois coach to win his first nine games at the university since Fletcher Lane did so more than 100 years ago. That stretch includes a Maui Invitational title in November against a field that featured heavy lifters such as Texas, Marquette and North Carolina.
Some perspective: Groce has achieved the feat by topping foes such as Hawaii and USC, Butler and Georgia Tech. Ol’ Lane, meanwhile, started 12-0 back in the 1907-08 season by winning 11 over YMCA and athletic club teams.
“The reason we’re in the position we’re in is because we’ve been pretty tough, and we’ve been together,” said Groce, who was hired from Ohio to replace Bruce Weber last March. “And our defensive numbers were top 35 in the country. … You watch SportsCenter, you don’t see many charges taken or a big stop or a great hedge on a ball screen or a jump and swipe or a guy diving on a loose ball. What they show are dunks, threes, fast breaks. But what you forget is that what puts you in position to play at the pace everyone wants to talk about right now (is) you’ve got to get stops.”
Those words show Groce’s hope for his maiden voyage in Champaign. “Toughness and togetherness” is his motto for a team that returns four starters, nine letterwinners and 11 players from a group that went an uninspiring 17-15 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years. He wants grit to be a turnaround’s glue.
The focus has paid off more than once. The Fighting Illini, ranked No. 13, have shown they can sprint from opponents; they won three games at the Maui Invitational by an average of 23.3 points. They’ve also tiptoed around landmines; they eked out victories over Hawaii, Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina by a combined 10 points.
They’ve done it with sharpshooting from behind the arc. Entering Tuesday, Groce’s team led the country in 3-pointers made (90) and 3-point field goals per game (11.3). Illinois swished at least 10 3-pointers in its first six games for the first time in program history.
“Our identity is toughness and togetherness,” said Illinois sophomore guard Tracy Abrams, who averages 11.3 points. “We’ve just got to remember our motto each time we go out. Every time we play, we’ve got to remember why we’re there and what we’re playing for.”
They should also remember this: They wouldn’t be this far without senior guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Paul (17.8 points per game) and Richardson (12.3) lead the team in scoring. Paul also paces Illinois in field goals made (52) and assists (35). Richardson, meanwhile, is the squad’s frontrunner in 3-pointers made (25) and rebounds (42).
“I don’t talk about them,” said Groce, when asked about the ranking, the Fighting Illini’s highest since reaching No. 12 in December 2010. “It’s a number. Obviously, we’re not going to apologize for being 9-0. … My job and the staff’s job is to get them to play good basketball. I can’t control how people vote, numbers and all that stuff. But we can control game plan. We can control executing better and making sure our team has great attitude.”
That attitude will either grow stronger or be shaken. A trip to No. 10 Gonzaga on Saturday will be a test of wills. And don’t look now … but the Braggin’ Rights game against No. 12 Missouri on Dec. 22 in St. Louis could be a show.
“They’re talented,” Richardson said of Gonzaga. “We’ve got to be prepared. Whatever coaches have for us for their offense and for our offense for their defense, we’ve just got to be prepared and listen to what coach has got to say.”
Chances are, Groce’s message to Richardson and others will be familiar: Be tough. Be together. Be smart. Believe.
And keep more than one pair of pants.
“No,” Groce said with a smile, when asked if the ripped pants could be saved. “This one’s gone.”