Illinois off to hot start behind new coach
by Scott M. Gleeson, USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Paul has been here before. The Illinois senior guard knows exactly what 10-0 feels like.
After an emphatic 85-74 victory Saturday at No. 10 Gonzaga, the No. 14 Illini have matched last season’s start.
Illinois also started Big Ten play 4-1 last season, but then saw everything unravel. The Illini lost 12 of their final 14 games, a conclusion that led to coach Bruce Weber’s firing after nine years.
Paul, who scored a season-high 35 points Saturday, is determined the similarities end there.
“We have to keep our foot on the gas pedal,” said Paul, who’s averaging a team-best 19.5 points and 3.8 assists and is second in rebounding at 4.4 a game. “We’ve been in this same position, nationally ranked. None of that matters.”
Paul remembers a teary-eyed goodbye news conference for Weber, the coach who recruited him as a teenager in Gurnee, Ill., and helped him develop as a person off the court and an all-conference guard on it.
“Losing Coach Weber wasn’t easy, we had a real close relationship,” Paul said. “I’ve had a sour taste in my mouth for a long time now for how things ended.”
While Illinois was out of the postseason last March without even an NIT invitation, mid-major Ohio was about to embark on a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament behind John Groce.
Meanwhile, Illinois athletics director Mike Thomas was turned down by Final Four-seasoned coaches Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth and Brad Stevens of Butler. But the day after Ohio’s season ended with an NCAA tournament loss to No. 1 seed North Carolina in overtime, Groce had a message indicating Thomas’ interest. “It became clear during the process that John was a terrific fit,” Thomas said.
Groce, a raspy-voiced 41-year-old who grew up in nearby Danville, Ind., listening to Big Ten games on his grandmother’s transistor radio, said, “This is one of the top 10 basketball programs in the country,” Groce said in a confident tone. “Are we there now? No, but we’re going to get there. We want to find ways to get better every single day. Even if you’re on … [For more on Illinois off to hot start behind new coach John Groce, click here.]