“I love that kid.”
Following a 74-55 thumping of Ohio State this past Saturday, John Groce decided to stick up for D.J. Richardson, his senior shooting guard currently going through a terrible shooting slump amid surrounding and consistent criticism. Instead of throwing him under the bus (ahem, Bruce), however, Groce basically stated that he wouldn’t trade D.J. for M.J., and reinforced his desire to see him shoot even more.
While some of us want to see Richardson benched for the more explosive Joseph Bertrand, Groce doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t pull guys for their mistakes, but instead encourages them. He relates to these players. He is more or less the anti-Weber. This is why John Groce is the coach of U of I basketball. His positive attitude has rubbed off on this team, and he has instilled the confidence back into a group of young men who were all but sapped of their super powers by the former Lex Luthor regime. Remember Meyers Leonard crying on the bench during the Nebraska game? I sure don’t.
Last week, when the Illini fell to Purdue, the same thought crossed all of our minds – here we go again. This is where the collapse, like last year, begins. This is the start of the Illini turning their one loss record into a losses-greater-than-wins record. This is when folks start jumping off the slowly churning bandwagon, where the Groce honeymoon ends and the marriage finally begins. In the eternal words of Dennis Green…eh, you get the idea.
But after Saturday’s resounding win, I think most of us have stepped back from the ledge just a tad. Let’s be clear though – the Buckeyes are overrated. They have no inside game, and they are definitely not a top 10 team. WE out-rebounded them. Let that sink in for a bit. And let’s also remember the fact that the Illini performed the same feat last year, beating OSU at home and further bulking up their resume before The Collapse. In other words, we have seen this movie before.
With that being said, this win felt different. We weren’t relying on the heroics of Batman-Brandon to shove 40+ points down the throats of the Jokers from OSU. And we weren’t relying on a ridiculous amount of attempted and made threes either. We actually won the game by driving to the hoop, creating opportunities for others, boxing out, playing great defense, and getting after it in front of a rocking Assembly Hall like I haven’t seen in a LONG time.
The improvement from Purdue to OSU, after some apparently grueling practices, has further made me a believer in John Groce’s ability to not only motivate and relate, but to also understand the game of basketball itself. I saw concrete evidence in improvement boxing out and gang-rebounding. I saw guys getting after loose balls. I saw an improved offense utilizing the dribble drive, up-tempo pacing, and our tremendous athletes. Not to mention the remarkable improvement in Nnanna Egwu’s game. That guy was a liability at the beginning of the season. Now he has a jumper.
I’ll have to wait and see how the season plays out before passing judgment, especially with our slate of difficult conference opponents coming up, but to me, this season already feels different. My prediction: I see our Illini heroes putting on their capes come March, and this time, they’ll be there to stay.
You can read more from Tejash here.