Down 12-3 at Gonzaga, the first thing that came to my head as a jaded Illinois basketball fan was, “it’s over”.
As a self-proclaimed sports pessimist, this way of thinking, from the Bears to the Bulls to the White Sox, is very common with me.
But with the Illini, it isn’t just pessimism driving my inner-monologue. It’s habit.
Having spent countless hours sitting in front of my TV watching the Illini lose game after game the last few years under Bruce Weber, I couldn’t get myself to think any differently. Whether getting down early by not being able to put the ball in the basket, to taking the air out of the ball and blowing late game leads, to standing around the perimeter for 34 seconds before chucking a long three, I’ve grown accustomed to the short comings of Illinois basketball. I even stopped watching games last year to make the pain go away. You can call me a bad fan, but who likes torture?
So on Saturday, down 12-3, pessimism started rearing its ugly head again. But what followed was different. I saw a confident John Groce call a timeout with a sense of calmness in an otherwise hostile environment, clapping his hands to encourage the team. I saw a coach who didn’t bench his players anytime a shot was taken and missed. I saw the Illini NOT melt the shot clock on every possession. I saw steals. Fastbreaks. Teammates supporting one another during team huddles. And I saw guys DRIVING TO THE HOOP when the shots stopped falling! That was a sight for sore eyes, to say the least.
And then there was Brandon Paul – 35 points and a block party. He has transformed his game through the new coaching staff, where his ability to get to the rim will make him some coin in the NBA next year. Last year, BP3 would have setting for the 3-ball more often then not, especially during the times when the shot clock was running down or when we were down early. This year, his thinking seems different. Big time players make big time plays, and Paul was a prime example of the good things that happen when you attack the basket.
In the NBA, the players more often than not determine the outcomes of games. In college, the head coach is responsible for much of the outcome. His job is to recruit the right players and put them in the best possible position to succeed. With that in mind, I believe in John Groce. From his “attacking” style of play to his post-game interviews to his media sessions to his ability to relate to players, I see someone with the knack for big-time college basketball. Though there are still a ton of shortcomings on this team (post play, over-reliance on BP3, ball handling), I believe that JG will recruit high quality players to address these weaknesses down the road. I believe that, once he gets his own players into the system, there won’t be such an emphasis on the three-ball, which is always a good thing. I believe that Groce has completely changed the culture and outlook of Illinois basketball in less than a year. I believe that Christmas has come early for Illini fans.
Twitter – @tjpatel403
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