I don't think anybody out there could have predicted this kind of start to the season for the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team and first-year head coach John Groce.
After all, the Illini were returning the majority of a team that started last season 10-0 but then seemingly went into meltdown mode. They proceeded to go 7-15 the rest of the way, including losing 12 of their last 14 games to finish the season at 17-15 and missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in the previous five years.
This of course led to the firing of head coach Bruce Weber and the eventual hiring of Groce.
Soon after Groce took the job in Champaign, the Illini took another hit when they found out they would be without the services of center Meyers Leonard, as he made the decision to leave school following his sophomore season to enter the NBA draft.
In addition to that, the only incoming freshman would be preferred walk-on Mike LaTulip after the rest of Weber's recruits decided to play elsewhere once he was no longer the coach.
Needless to say, things were not looking great coming into this season, and it certainly appeared that Groce had his work cut out for him.
He came in saying all the right things and preaching that the Illini would play an up-tempo brand of basketball that started with tenacious defense.
He freely admitted that his job would be tough because he wasn't sure that he had the right personnel in place to run his system, but he insisted that no matter what, this team would play hard.
He had the Illini fans believing, but after what had happened in recent years under Weber, there was definitely still a fair amount of skepticism surrounding Illinois basketball coming into this season.
Well, fast forward to mid-December, and there is certainly a different vibe in Champaign.
The Illini currently stand at 11-0 and are ranked 10th in the nation, their highest ranking since 2006 when a guy by the name of Dee Brown was roaming the campus.
Illini fans may remember him, I'm not sure.
This team is being led by senior Brandon Paul, who is averaging 19 points a game and looks like the player all Illini fans were hoping he would be. He simply looks like a different player, and the biggest difference is his confidence.
Actually, the entire team looks more confident. Whatever Groce is selling, the Illini are buying it and they are racking up wins in the process.
Now, this isn't to say that everything has been smooth sailing. The Illini have had their share of close games early on, but they have found ways to win—something that may not have happened a year ago.
They have had some big wins early on against teams such as Butler, Georgia Tech and Gonzaga, but they have had a tendency to follow up those games by struggling in the subsequent games against the likes of Western Carolina, Gardner-Webb and Norfolk State.
After their most recent win over Norfolk State, a game in which the Illini shot a season-low 35 percent and trailed for much of the first half before coming away with a 64-54 victory, Groce admitted that he needs to find a way to get his team better prepared consistently.
"I better figure it out," Groce said. "I have to do a better job of getting them ready to play."
And he's exactly right because once Big Ten play begins, those wins will be a lot harder to come by.
The fact of the matter is that this Illinois team is a jump-shooting team that relies heavily on the three-pointer, and if the shots aren't falling, they will have to find a way to grind out wins by doing the little things.
They just are not going to do a lot of damage down low consistently, but up until now, they haven't had to.
Just about everyone on their roster can step out and knock down a jumper if needed. Even big men Nanna Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey can hit from outside (Griffey has the second-best three-point percentage on the team at 43 percent).
In fact, as a team, the Illini are shooting just a shade under 40 percent from three-point land and lead the nation with over 10 three-point field goals per game.
They have four guys (Paul, Griffey, Joseph Bertrand and Myke Henry) currently shooting over 40 percent from three and D.J. Richardson is at 35 percent. In short, this team can light it up.
They also have a true point guard in gritty sophomore Tracy Abrams, who has shown the ability to lead, which is also something they lacked last season.
Most importantly, Groce has this team believing in themselves, and that cannot be overstated.
They are a hungry group after what they went through last year, and Groce seems to be the right guy at the right time.
Now, I don't want to curb the enthusiasm of Illini fans, but I can tell you right now that this team will not go undefeated.
I can also tell you that it isn't likely that they will win the Big Ten.
However, what I can tell you is that this team will compete. They will fight and battle to the end regardless of the score. Groce wouldn't have it any other way.
But the biggest thing for fans is that they are fun to watch again. They actually look like the Fighting Illini.
It may be tough to keep up their current pace, but one thing is for sure—if they don't, it won't be from a lack of effort.
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