2013 was a good year for John Groce in his first season as Fighting Illini basketball coach, and from the looks of the 2013-14 season, that seems to be going just as well. The Illini finished off the non-conference portion of the season with a flurry, defeating the Flames of UIC 74-60, after being down by 10 at the half. This sluggish start might have been attributed to a slight letdown following the Braggin' Rights win over Missouri just one week earlier in St. Louis. The Illini finished the pre-conference season at 12-2, but could very easily have finished one win better at 13-1, had it not been for a late game collapse against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Still, 12-2 is not a bad way to enter the Big Ten portion of the schedule, and with the conference slate beginning a week earlier than normal this season, Groce had his players poised for another surprising run in league play.
Enter the Indiana Hoosiers to State Farm Center for a New Year's Eve matinee, and the Illini had a chance to accomplish something that had never been done before, which was beat Indiana in Champaign twice in a calendar year. Who could forget last season's thrilling win over the top-ranked Hoosiers 74-72, as Tyler Griffey broke away from Indiana defender Cody Zeller to score the game winner as time expired. It would be hard pressed to top that performance, but the Illini tried. The Illini and the Hoosiers traded leads for the better part of the game, with the score tied at the break 39-39, as well as at the end of regulation at 71 apiece. Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season as a result of transferring from Drake, has been nothing short of sensational so far this season, and Tuesday afternoon he almost singlehandedly willed the Illini to victory. Rice scored 29 points , playing 42 of the 45 minutes of the contest to help lead the Illini to an 83-80 victory over their rivals to the east. Tracy Abrams added 17 points, while Joseph Bertrand scored 13 points for the Illini, who improved their overall season record to 13-2 and 1-0 in the rugged Big Ten. The Hoosiers won the battle on the boards by a sizable 43-31 margin, and the Illini took advantage of 23 Hoosier turnovers, compared to 10 for Illinois. Indiana falls to 10-4 overall with the loss, and start the conference season 0-1. Indiana coach Tom Crean mentioned in his postgame press conference that he thought Groce was one of the best coaches in the entire country, a fitting compliment to the job that he has done so far in just his second season at the helm. The Illini have a few days to savor the victory over the Hoosiers before next getting into action, when they welcome the Nittany Lions of Penn State to the State Farm Center on Saturday afternoon (1:15 pm CT, BTN). Also taking place on Saturday will be the 25th anniversary of the Flyin' Illini Final Four team. That team was one of the best in Illinois history, and still rank as one of the best teams of all-time never to have won it all. You cannot go back in time and change the course of history, but it would be interesting to see what might have been if the Illini could have beaten Michigan that fateful Saturday evening in Seattle. You never know.
Matt Bollant is not seeing the same success for his women's team that the men's team is seeing, but they are still a work in progress. With a 7-6 record in the non-conference season, the Illini open up the Big Ten portion of the season on Friday evening when they welcome the Wisconsin Badgers to the State Farm Center (7:00 pm CT, BTN). The Illini lost to #18 ranked Georgia 82-60 last Sunday afternoon in Athens, Georgia, and have lost to 3 top 20 teams thus far this season. Amber Moore leads the Illini ladies in scoring with an 18.8 average, followed by Ivory Crawford and freshman Jacqui Grant averaging 13.5 and 12.8 points per game, respectively. Hopefully the Big Ten season will be much more kind to the Illini.