Illinois Basketball: John Groce Turning Around Program Quicker Than Anticipated

Ryan CuriFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2012

CHAMPAIGN, IL - JANUARY 10: Brandon Paul #3 and D.J. Richardson #1 of the Illinois Fighting Illini celebrate during the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Assembly Hall on January 10, 2012 in Champaign, Illinois. The Illini defeated the Buckeyes 79-74 as Paul scored 43 points. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

After two wins to start the 2012-13 season, Illinois traveled to Hawaii to for a four-game trip. After appearing jet-lagged in the first half of a contest against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, Illinois fought back to force overtime in a game that they may have given up all hope in a season ago. In overtime, the Illini once again fell behind before Tracy Abrams assisted on a three-point field goal that left D.J. Richardson's hands just prior to the buzzer sounding.

Three nights later, Illinois matched up with an improved USC team in the nightcap of the Maui Invitational's opening day. Illinois led the entire game, beating the Trojans by 30. Thanks to host Chaminade's upset win over Texas, Illinois' semifinal win over the Division-II Silverswords wasn't as challenging as they may have anticipated.

Butler took care of the tournament favorite, North Carolina, in the first semifinal matchup. So while a rematch of the 2005 National Championship was no longer an option, the Illini found themselves as a sudden favorite over Butler in the Maui title game. Just as was the case in the first two tournament games, Illinois led the duration of the game over the two-time national runner-up Bulldogs.

Brandon Paul was named as the tournament MVP while Richardson joined him on the all-tournament team. Illinois left Maui with a 6-0 record heading back to Champaign. Upon arriving home from the island, the Illini were put in a trap game against a Gardner-Webb squad that plays awfully similar to U of I.

After banking in a three-pointer to put Gardner-Webb ahead by two with under 15 seconds remaining, Tyler Griffey answered by nailing a three-pointer of his own, giving John Groce's squad their second last-second win in nine days and fifth overall win during that time frame.

So here we stand, a 7-0 Fighting Illini squad that was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten during the preseason is currently ranked 22nd in the country. On Wednesday evening, Illinois will take its chances against Georgia Tech, hoping to extend its ACC/Big Ten Challenge winning streak to four and give the current senior class an undefeated record in the challenge.

Illinois is currently halfway through its non-conference schedule but will need wins at Gonzaga and against Missouri in St. Louis to achieve an unbeaten pre-conference campaign. The Illini will also need to avoid getting upset as they nearly were against Hawaii and Gardner-Webb. Besides Georgia Tech, Illinois still faces off with Western Carolina, Norfolk State and Eastern Kentucky.

On top of that, Illinois will try and end a three-game losing streak in its annual game played at the United Center in Chicago when the Illini battle Auburn. With the suddenly heightened expectations, anything less than a 12-2 record prior to the start of Big Ten play would be an underachievement.

Credit should be split between first-year head coach John Groce and his staff as well as the players who were part of a disappointing season a year ago that cost Bruce Weber his job in Champaign. Now the real question begs, can Illinois keep up the momentum that it built in Maui, or will the Illini flounder as they did last year after a hot start that got them into the Top 25?

Currently, the minutes allocated to each Fighting Illini player per game are as follows:

D.J. Richardson - 32

Brandon Paul - 30

Tracy Abrams - 29

Nnanna Egwu - 23

Tyler Griffey - 23

Joseph Bertrand - 21

Sam McLaurin - 18

Myke Henry - 12

Devin Langford - 5

Mike LaTulip - 3

Mike Shaw - 2

Ibby Djimde - 1

Kevin Berardini - 1

As Big Ten play approaches, don't be surprised to see the rotation thin down with the increased completion that this team will be facing in the nation's top conference. Here is what I project the minutes to look like a month or two from now:

Brandon Paul - 32

D.J. Richardson - 30

Tracy Abrams - 28

Joseph Bertrand - 28

Nnanna Egwu - 24

Sam McLaurin - 20

Tyler Griffey - 20

Myke Henry - 11

Devin Langford - 5

Mike LaTulip - 2

The person who will see the biggest increase in minutes in my projection is Bertrand. Joe is essentially the fourth starting guard after Brandon, D.J. and Tracy and even found himself playing the power forward position last year alongside all three of them. Groce has gone with a more conventional starting lineup, but that shouldn't take away from Bertrand's playing time in even the slightest way.

Sam McLaurin, Brandon Paul, and Nnanna Egwu will see slight increases as well while Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey, Myke Henry and Mike LaTulip will see a minor decrease in minutes. Mike Shaw, Ibby Djimde and Kevin Berardini will all be taken out of the rotation, as they'll only see playing time in blowouts more than likely.

Other than Bertrand, nobody's minutes increased or decreased by more than three on my plan. In actuality, some players' minutes may change by more than that come February and March. I believe that Bertrand was the reason why Illinois won this past Sunday to remain unbeaten. Overall, I like the way that this team is forming, making the loss of Meyers Leonard to the NBA almost a blessing in disguise.

Prior to the season, I pegged Illinois as the 10th-best team in the Big Ten, which is coming from a lifelong fan of the orange and blue. As it stands today, I would move Illinois into the seventh slot, surpassing Northwestern, Iowa and Pursue based on how each team has performed thus far.

I'm not going to get too ahead of myself just because we are now ranked, and I'll keep my expectations in balance while still being extremely excited about the level of play that Coach Groce has already gotten out of this squad.