Monday, March 25, 2013

Illini Pride is Back

I set off trying to write about the game against Miami, when I stumbled upon the absolutely perfect piece over at A Lion Eye. It's linked both here and below, and encapsulates everything I was going to say in a truly outstanding way. I do have a few thoughts though. First, it's heartbreaking to watch a loss like that. I feel terrible for the team to watch a game like that slip away, especially with controversial officiating at the end. But at the same time, I couldn't be prouder of how they established themselves in the biggest game of their careers. This team, a team that most had written off prior to the season, had the program on the brink of its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since the magical run of 2005. Last night we saw the culmination of an entire season of working together, effort, and player development. I wanted that win bad, so bad that I'm still reeling today as I write this, but I can rest easy knowing that this group laid everything they had on the line last night. What a proud, program-building moment for the group; this is the memory that they all get to go out on.

I can't say enough about the job John Groce did. He inherited a program that had self-destructed last year and took essentially the same team to the brink of the Sweet Sixteen. From the beginning, he preached toughness and togetherness, and didn't let his team fall apart even as the wheels started to fall off in Big Ten play. The way he developed and brought along even the seniors as the season went on was amazing. He kept this team together, got them to believe in themselves again, and brought the best out of them. The way they played last night, with all out intensity for 40 minutes and a complete team effort all around, was a John Groce creation. He has done wonders for this program in conjunction with these seniors and the rest of the team. We all thought that before the season it would be a difficult rebuilding year, but in all reality looking back, it ended up being the perfect combination to bring back Illinois basketball.

DJ and Brandon brought the program back
Hats off to the seniors the most though, especially Brandon Paul. They made me proud to be an Illini fan with how they brought the program back this year. I was in awe last night as they played tough and together, unable and not willing to let this game and season go. Brandon played like a man possessed, leading and urging his teammates to bring it on both ends. I couldn't believe how emotional I was during and after a game that admittedly I had already chalked up to a long shot. That just shows the impact that these kids had on this program.

I remember when Paul and DJ were recruited, when they signed, and when they first appeared in uniform. The freshman year Clemson comeback and DJ's Big Ten Freshman of the Year feel like yesterday. I'll never forget Brandon's 43 against Ohio State, his buzzer beater against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tourney, his performance and "call-me" motion at Gonzaga this season, and his light-hearted, near constant humor coming from social media and interviews. I'll never forget how tough DJ was, how he played his heart out on defense and withstood some really difficult times in the middle years only to come on so strong in his development this year.

The 2009 Class as Freshmen - Reestablishing Illini Pride
Above all, I'll never forget the hope that their class - DJ, Brandon, and Tyler (and redshirt junior Joe Bertrand) - brought when they came to the school in 2009. That hope had it's resulting ups and downs, but we can truly see the tremendous impact these kids had on the program. All of these guys set the tone both on and off the court. You didn't hear about them getting into trouble, blowing off classes or workouts, or generally not caring. For DJ and Brandon especially, they weathered a particularly difficult stretch of Illini basketball only to set it in a great direction as they leave. After watching their last game, I feel like a vacuum has opened. It's going to be difficult not seeing them in an Illini uniform again. I'm going to miss these kids, there's no doubt about that.

 I couldn't be prouder of this team, the seniors, and Coach Groce. It was a season that was better than anyone imagined at the beginning, and they cemented a memory that I could have only hoped they would. They helped reestablish a proud program, and made myself and the rest of Illini Nation ecstatic about the future of the program. Illini Pride is back.

Link to the outstanding A Lion Eye post.