Sunday, December 9, 2012

New Culture Taking Hold at Illinois

Wow, what a win. A great win for John Groce, for the Illinois program, for the players involved; one of those this-team-is-for-real type wins. By taking down a good Gonzaga team, in a feisty atmosphere, this early in a new season and new era, Illinois has shown that this team is here to stay. Even more than that, it shows the impact that Groce has had on this team and program after only 10 games. Would anyone have expected this team, the team that lost nine of their last ten games to end last season, to be undefeated at 10-0 and poised to enter the top 10 rankings in the country? It's a testament to the work that everyone in the program has put in, from AD Mike Thomas in hiring Groce, to Groce and his staff for their tireless work and culture change, to the players, specifically senior leaders like Brandon Paul.

Groce inherited a listless, shipwrecked program that had no identity. In the short time since he's been hired, he's literally flipped this program upside down. Gone is the boring, slow, and ineffective motion offense; in comes a high-tempo, exciting, and productive open offense. The offense Groce has instituted actually takes advantage of the athletic strengths of the players on the team, allowing them to push the ball up the floor and create space and chances for either an attack on the basket or an open jumper. Illinois players no longer sit around for an entire shot clock, wasting it away until forcing off a bad shot. Now, they attack the basket in this hybrid dribble drive offense, looking to get to the basket or find someone open for the three. In this way, Groce has fostered an environment for his players to succeed that they didn't have for years under Bruce Weber.

This type of offense has done wonders for the players on this team. Look at the resurgence of Tyler Griffey, for example. Griffey spent a lot of time in previous years riding the bench. He'd get into a game, miss a shot, feel the glare from Weber, and soon find his spot back on the bench. Now, he's become a vital cog in the Illinois machine, giving power forwards mismatches with his ability to hit the outside shot and still sneak in and grab some rebounds.

The intense Groce has revitalized the program
Groce's philosophical belief that with shot attempts, the more the better, has taken an Illinois squad with zero confidence and made them a team with a swagger. This confidence level is obvious in how the team doesn't fear any deficit, doesn't quit at all, and seems to fight for each other on every possession. This sense of unity doesn't just come from freedom on the offensive end, either. It's another tenet that Groce has forced his players to realize. With basketball, the ultimate team game, it's obvious that for any success to come it must come with the team. By opening up the offense and placing a priority on togetherness, Groce has brought this team together and made them infinitely more productive at the same time.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Groce does this with one of the best players in college basketball right now, Brandon Paul. We've witnessed the ups and downs of Brandon's career, seeing electrifying moments like his 43 point performance last year against Ohio State and his monster effort last night interspersed with efforts that came off as too much pressing. With Weber, Paul's strengths were stifled by a system that took away his creativity and his proclivity for hitting big shots. Now, under Groce, Paul has been given the opportunity to shoot when he wants and take the ball off the dribble when he wants, and the result has been the emergence of the player we all thought we would get on a consistent basis when he was first recruited to Illinois.

I really do think we saw Paul emerge to take this team to another level last night. Paul struggled under Weber, but felt loyalty to the man who recruited him. His ability to work through Weber's firing, and adjust to a new system that actually suits his strengths surely has proven to be a cathartic process that now is paying dividends for the team as a whole. When Weber was fired, could you imagine Paul saying something like he did last night, that Groce is amazing and the players want to play incredibly hard for him? This is the same Paul who has embraced his leadership role, whether it is lead by example or being a vocal leader as well. On nearly every possession, you could see how consumed Paul was by his desire to will his team to victory, even as they fell to a large deficit.

What Groce has done with this team is nothing short of amazing. Just look at this team right now, and how they've been brought together:

Sometimes all it takes is the right coach. In college basketball, as much as any other sport, the right coach is key. The last few years, this program has dealt with underachieving teams, even though these teams have supposedly been loaded with talent. After Weber was fired, the question was just how blame was on underperforming players (or players that just weren't that good) and how much blame was on Weber. I always felt that no matter what, it was on Weber to recruit, develop, and incorporate players into a successful system and he failed to do that. Seeing what Groce has done with these same players though makes me realize just how underwhelming Bruce was in the last few years here.

It's hard to tell where this team goes from here. 10-0 is nice, but an extremely difficult Big Ten schedule awaits this team as they're still learning to excel under their new coach. But it has to be encouraging how well they've responded to Groce. He's opened up a system that let's these players focus more on playing basketball with their natural abilities and less worried about being constrained within an archaic system. He's brought this team together, brought out the best in a great player like Brandon Paul, opened up pipelines in recruiting. He's made Illinois basketball relevant again, with national sportswriters marveling over how big of a win Illinois had on national television on the road against a good opponent. He's made alumni and students, and his players, care again. And just as importantly, he's made Illinois basketball exciting again. Who would've thought, as we watched last season slip away, that only 10 games into this season I'd be able to write something like that?