For the Illini, now seven games, all wins, into the John Groce era, the national recognition has to be nice, right?
"Not really," leading scorer Brandon Paul said of the No. 22 ranking. "I've been ranked before, in my college career we've been ranked before. It doesn't really mean much. I think it means more to people outside the team than it does to us."
True, basketball rankings in November hold little to no bearing on ultimate goals – conference and national titles that can't be claimed for another three or four months.
But still, for a team entering the unknown this season with a new coach, to see that No. 22 next to its name this early in the season has to be encouraging, right?
"It doesn't change our feeling at all," said senior Tyler Griffey. "It's just a number. It's the ranking at the end of the year that matter the most."
So… Does it mean anything?
"It doesn't matter," said senior guard D.J. Richardson. "Been through this every year I've been here. The last three years it didn't mean nothing. First year, NIT, second year, NCAA tournament, last year, nothing. So rankings don't really mean anything. We're just trying to get better by the day and take some bigger steps."
Well, OK. To the players, the rankings hold little significance, at least in the present moment. But to outsiders, fans, opposing teams, media pundits and anybody else with a vested interest in college basketball, that little number means the Illini are well-thought of at this point in the season. Entering the Top 25 may not appear to change much on the surface, but there are undoubtably side effects that come with it. More attention, increased coverage, added expectations – these are but a few things that come with recognition. And with a Big Ten steeped with ranked teams – five ahead of the Illini – it means more hyped matchups.
Groce isn't worried about the baggage. He's not concerned about his team's focus because of the senior leadership, because of the comments made above.
"They've seen so much, these guys," Groce said. "They've been through some adversity, they've been through some successes. They've played in front of big crowds. They've played on TV. They've played at odd game times. They've played in different time zones. There's a huge benefit to having experience like we have and those guys have done a great job of beating the same drum that the coaches have in terms of their buy-in factor at such a high level. When it comes from your peers I think it's even a stronger message, so we appreciate those older guys."
The players' comments reflect a ‘completely-in-the-moment' mindset. Where do you think that came from? Surely Groce has to feel some validation from the ranking, right?
"Well, it's nothing but a number," he said. "It's early in the season.
"It's not like we don't appreciate the recognition, but at the end of the day what's it mean in terms of the longterm mission that we're on to try to be the basketball team that we can be in February and March? Not a whole lot. Those guys know that. The seniors know that."