Groce: 'I love the city.'

The Illini head to Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament, the city that has been and will continue to hold a major influence on the program.

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois coach John Groce says he loves playing in Chicago, the site of this week's Big Ten Tournament, but he acknowledges one detrimental aspect that comes with this particular trip to the Windy City.

"The only drawback ever is my wife gets to go and she likes to shop, so my pocket starts to turn into a little bit heavier of a hole," Groce said with a laugh Tuesday.

Illinois (21-11) returns to the United Center Thursday for the second time this season after beating Auburn in Chicago in December.

Slated to play Minnesota in the 11 a.m. tournament opening game, the Illini will be playing in the city that has been and figures to continue to be a major influence on the program. Groce hesitated when asked if he agreed that Illinois had to win over the city itself in terms of recruiting. But he did express fond feelings toward Chicago.

"I love the city. I love going up there. I love my Chicago Bears," he said. "We're looking forward to going up there. We had a good trip there in December. The biggest thing, we've got several guys that are from there."

The roster is full of players with Chicago ties. Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Myke Henry and Mike Shaw are listed as Chicago natives. Brandon Paul, Mike LaTulip and Kevin Berardini are from areas considered to be within the Chicago metropolitan area.

For all those players, playing in Chicago offers the unique opportunity to return to home territory to play in front of friends and family. Groce says he isn't concerned about the distraction factor.

"Our guys know, it's that time of year," Groce said. "It's a business trip. It is. At the same we want to be loose and aggressive and enjoy and embrace the moment as much as we can. That's what March is about."

Even the guys who aren't from Chicago are looking forward to the trip. Senior Tyler Griffey's family travelled ahead of the team, who arrived Wednesday, with plans to spend a week in Chicago.

"It's always fun to get up there," Griffey said. "I know a lot of the guys are from Chicago. My family, it makes it nice for them."

Recruiting-wise, two soon to be members of the team, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, are from Chicago. And two high-level targets in the 2014 class reside in the city as well. Center Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young HS) and forward Cliff Alexander (Curie) are two names in a deep pool of talented players the Illini are already in heavy contact with in the upcoming classes. The Illinois staff will surely spend a great deal of time recruiting the area in the future. And the kids will be watching this weekend.

With that in mind, Groce avoided the recruiting subject Tuesday, instead focusing his comments on his current team.

"I know we've got to play well Thursday," Groce said. "That's kind of what I'm worrying about."

The United Center was the venue in which the Illini last won this tournament, back in 2005. A banner, prominently noting the city and arena in which that championship was won, is displayed next to the door entering the court at the practice facility in Champaign. The players have passed by it every day before workouts and practices.

"I'm just really excited to see what's going to happen during this tournament, because anything can happen," Paul said.


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