So far in the John Groce era at Illinois, things have gone very well, and the sudden resurgence of the basketball program has made a lot of people around Illini Nation forget the disaster that the football season provided. Going into last Saturday evening's game at Gonzaga, nobody (including this pundit), gave the Illini a fighting chance to walk into Spokane and knock off the Zags. But, that's exactly what happened, as Illinois survived a cold start that saw them get down by double digits early in the game to upset Gonzaga 85-74 to move to 10-0 on the season. Brandon Paul was 'da man, as he scored 35 points, giving people flashback memories to last season, when he dropped 42 on Ohio State. Paul seems to be coming into his own and taking a leadership role on this team, something that was severely lacking last season under then coach Bruce Weber. But, this is a different attitude altogether for the new-look Illini, and it shows on the court. The next question was, how would the Illini respond in their next game, a seemingly winnable game against Norfolk State? The answer was somewhat expected, as they struggled on Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall against the Spartans, but still came out on top to defeat Norfolk State 64-54 to extend their winning streak to begin the Groce era to 11. Paul once again led the Illini in scoring with 14 points, while D. J. Richardson, who was banged up during the game, added 11. The fast start for Illinois is renewing expectations for a return to the NCAA Tournament, but not so fast, folks. The Big Ten, which is the strongest it has been in a long time, still beckons. But, one game at a time. The next challenge for the Illini will be unbeaten Eastern Kentucky on Sunday at the Assembly Hall (5:00 pm CT, ESPNU). The Colonels are 9-0 and have beaten Norfolk State by a larger margin than what the Illini did. They also have a local product on their team in former Centennial Charger Jeff Johnson. Johnson, who has transformed his body by losing about 45 pounds in the off-season, may not be the most prolific player on the Eastern Kentucky roster, but he is making a difference and playing Division I basketball, which is no small accomplishment itself. Johnson is also the former teammate of Illini player Ravonte Rice, who is sitting out this season due to transfer rules. The Illini tend to play down to the level of their opponent, and this is no exception to that rule. One game at a time boys, one game at a time.
Groce also received some good news on the recruiting front this past week, when he locked up his first verbal for the 2014 recruiting class. Centennial product Michael Finke, who has been wooed by several other schools in the Big Ten, decided he wanted to stay home to play his college basketball. Finke, a junior, has really elevated his game in the past season, and according to him, the sky's the limit as to how far he can further improve his game. Finke also stated that he models his game after current Illini player Tyler Griffey, and can see himself in the role in Groce's offense. The 2014 class is off to a good start, no doubt.
After a hiccup by the Illini women in Texas last week, they bounced back by winning a couple of games, on the road in Memphis 73-65, a game in which Karisma Penn, the Illini's outstanding senior led Matt Bollant's squad with 21 points. The Illini showed resolve down the stretch, as Alexis Smith hit 8 of her final 10 free throws to seal the victory. Wanting to capitalize on the momentum of the Memphis win, the Illini then ventured home to battle the Oregon Ducks, who are coached by legendary bench boss Paul Westhead. The Illini prevailed once again, downing the Ducks 80-62, as all 5 Illini starters scored in double figures, led by Penn, who had 17 points. Ivory Crawford and Amber Moore added 16 and 15 points, respectively, who improve to 6-4 on the season. The Illini will take a little time off for final exams, and will be back in action on Friday, December 21st, when they welcome the Redbirds of Illinois State (7:00 pm CT, no TV)