The Meeting(s) That Changed the Season

A players only meeting in late January was hyped as a turning point for the Illini, but a fairy tale notion of the gathering is inaccurate.

CHAMPAIGN - It was the sports storybook moment of Illinois' season.

The cliff notes version: Team gets off to a fast start, only to have a January slump scar the overall record and jeopardize the goal of reaching a postseason tournament that matters. With the season hanging in the balance, leaders organize a players-only meeting. The team immediately turns it's play around, winning the next game and finishes the season strong to accomplish it's goals.

You've heard this before, right? It's a rough sketch for a movie or book or both.

That's what happened to Illinois this season. Opening Big Ten play with four losses in the first six games, senior guard D.J. Richardson called a meeting prior to playing at Nebraska. Illinois won by 20. In the aftermath, the media (including this writer) ran wild with tales of The Meeting That Saved the Season.

It sounded great. And given the way the season went, it remained great. But a little more digging into the subject KOs the fairy tale aspect.

The only thing unusual about that meeting, says senior Brandon Paul, is that it was leaked to the public.

"I mean, we've had other meetings," he said. "That was just the meeting that got out or whatever."

Forward Sam McLaurin laughed off the romantic notion that The Meeting was anything other than a meeting. Instead, he referred to it as just another gathering in a long line of gatherings to that point in the season. Those meetings continued after Illinois beat the Cornhuskers, as the team went on to win seven of the next 14, with improved play even in losses, to lock itself into the Big Dance.

"Not only do we have meetings where we sit down everybody and just open up the floor for everybody, but since everyone has iPhones these days, we have group texts," McLaurin said. "It's just us players and everybody throws in what they have to say."

That's not to say what was said in the meeting prior to the Nebraska game wasn't important. The fact that there was a meeting wasn't the story. That was a daily occurrence. It was what was said that meant so much.

"I think it got everybody back on the same page, got everybody back with the mentality that we need all five guys to win," Richardson said. "I think defense was hurting us as well around that time."

Coach John Groce didn't ask Richardson to organize a meeting before the Nebraska game, or any time for that matter. He was encouraged by the move though.

"That shows you that he cares," Groce said. "Those guys wanted to play better. They knew they could play better. They were frustrated that they weren't playing better. It meant enough to them that they got together as a team and wanted to respond and wanted to play better than they were playing."

That Richardson, Paul, McLaurin and others expressed such leadership from October through March played a significant role in reaching the NCAA Tournament.

Groce has routinely deferred to the senior class, saying this is "their team." It's their season and now their tournament. Embracing that role, taking on that responsibility, in the form of calling meetings and keeping group texts circulating, is a crucial step.

"I think it starts there," Groce said. "It starts with those guys wanting to do it. That's kind of been the trait all year."

With that in mind, guess what happened in the locker room following the loss to Indiana in the last game Illinois played? Paul stood up and said something. So did Richardson. And sophomore Tracy Abrams.

"We talk all the time," Paul said. "It just shows that everyone cares at a high level. We bought into Coach Groce's system and we're even saying his little sayings. I say 'high level' all the time. Just stuff like that, it's helped us along the way."

So don't bet on a future documentary about The Meeting in January. Perhaps a meeting later on in March will be the one to go down in lore. The real key though is that the meetings have been routine, the leadership consistent.

Shortly after learning Illinois would play Colorado in the tournament Friday, Paul put the importance of that January meeting into perspective.

"I definitely think it helped us. I don't want to contribute it to all our success or anything like that,," he said. "I think just us having the mindset that we want to get better on a consistent basis has helped us to this point."

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