Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Piper: Going down? Not without a fight

Groce has his team fighting in an improbable spot heading towards March.

John Groce is a fighter.

Whatever you think of his ability to coach, that is an absolute fact. Whatever you think of his 'climb the ladder' campaign, it's a fact.

Underneath every "obviously" and press conference buzz word that may or not make you cringe, you find an inspired mind and a tenacious heart.

Fair conversations have occurred on whether Groce gets 'it'. Substitution patterns. Freshmen playing time. Game planning. Reviving this program.

When it comes to fighting with every ounce he's got, Groce gets it.

The boxer's mentality. When the outside rainstorm comes, he puts the hood up, goes to the gym and hits the bag. He steps in the ring when the bell sounds focused and determined -- even knowing, but pretending not to, that the score is against him.

More importantly, Groce has gotten his team to fully buy into that way of thinking. One step at a time. One round at a time. Illinois has won four of the last five, and they are back in the thick of this fight.

The goal of every coach is to turn a group of players into an army and have them fighting at their peak for the final stretch of the season. When it all matters most. In other words, heading into March. You watch the Illini and you see that.

You've seen a team that is hungry to guard you. You've seen an offense that moves and stretches you out. You see emotion. Confidence. Will power.

Out of Illinois? Well, yeah. The Illini went to Northwestern and Iowa and grinded out wins. The Wildcats came back to Champaign for revenge and instead got popped in the mouth. And on Sunday, Illinois played some of their best basketball at Nebraska -- throwing haymakers at the Huskers' feel-good Legends Weekend.

The Illini shot 48 percent from the field and hit 13 threes. Defensively, they held Nebraska to 37.5 percent shooting and scored 21 points off of 18 turnovers. Three Illini scored in double figures, including Tracy Abrams -- who hit four threes. It took him 25 shots and 12 games to hit his first four threes of the Big Ten season.

Don't blame anyone for being surprised at it all.

This team was lying on the mat with a black eye and a bloodied mouth in the form of a 3-8 Big Ten record after a home loss to Minnesota -- their third defeat in a row and sixth in seven games. Even after an unlikely response at Northwestern, the Illini went right back to the ground with a beating at the hands of Penn State -- who led by as many as 19 on Illinois' home floor.

Even Groce's cornerman in the ring, Josh Whitman, had no choice but to think about who his next fighter would be. He took flights and made calls to that effort, as his job description entails.

That's a tough spot to be in for both people in that corner. But when you win rounds, you win stability. And Groce got a very firm and steady hug from Whitman after Sunday night's win.

The fight ain't over. But in Whitman's heart of hearts, you can tell what he would prefer to do. Even for a man whose composure and discreetness would be dangerous to face in a game of poker, this you can read. And you've been able to since last spring. It's been more about whether Groce would force his hand.

On to the real mystery. Why is it that now Illinois looks like the team Champaign was supposed to have this season? What is so hard about basketball in January? And this isn't just this season. The world's greatest thinkers probably couldn't crack the equation.

But for whatever it is about January (12-28 during this tenure) and mid-season slumps, Groce has a way of willing his team towards the finish line. Save for last season, Groce's team has gotten within arm's reach of the NCAA tournament -- even improbably. And yes, they've only grasped it once. That's important, undeniable and the basis of the problem.

Still, there's something to be said about the late rally. It's nothing new. In 2015, Illinois sat at 3-5 in Big Ten play with Rayvonte Rice sidelined with a broken hand. The Illini won seven of their next 10 games, including a big road win at Michigan State. One more win in the regular season finale or conference tournament would punch the ticket. It didn't happen.

In 2014, Illinois was 3-10 in conference play in mid-February. But they won five of their next six, which included a win over Indiana in the Big Ten tournament. An utterly improbable but completely legitimate tournament chance awaited if Illinois found a way to upset top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals.

The Illini played one heck of a game, led by two going into the final minute and had the win sealed if Abrams makes a close-range runner. All that fell inches short.

But they haven't all been failures. In Groce's first season, his team was 2-7 in Big Ten play in early February. But an upset win over No. 1 Indiana sparked a five-game winning streak. And the Illini got the last one they needed in the Big Ten tournament to go dancing.

These cardiac episodes weren't just saved for Champaign. Groce's team was 5-8 in the MAC at Ohio in 2010 in the middle of February. Can you guess what happened next? They won seven of their next eight games and clinched a tournament berth. Then, Groce's group knocked out 3-seeded Georgetown in the first round.

This is what he does. Is it frustrating? Sure. Is it fighting? You better believe it.

We've had our eyes wide open for 'this is the end' signs. Bruce Weber's happened to come at Nebraska around a similar time. His team went to Lincoln against a bad team, trailed by as many as 32 in the second half and lost 80-57. That was the fifth loss in a row.

The team was dead. The coach was dead. The program was dead.

Fast forward to 2017 at Nebraska. The three previous sentiments were crossing the minds in and around Illini nation like deja vu just two weeks ago. But when this squad went to face a bad team in Lincoln, Illinois played with heart and toughness. They led by double digits for the final 13-plus minutes of the game and came away with a 73-57 win.

This team has life. This coach has fight. And the players believe.

What's hard to believe is that bracketologists are thinking and talking about Illinois. But there the Illini sit on the bubble. And with a chance. Yahoo! Sports' Brad Evans has the Illini just on the outside of the field.

Basketball just got a whole lot more meaningful around these parts. Let it sink in.

Illinois has taken the steps up the ladder to what you'd call the 'big boss' in a Mortal Kombat-like scene. Also known as Mr. March himself: Tom Izzo. And the battle date is March 1.

Izzo's Spartans have also won four of their last five. They're rolling heading into this time of year. Surprise! And boy, do they have a scary collection of young talent.

But here is a big-time game. One last game at the State Farm Center for Malcolm Hill, Abrams and the rest of the seniors. And you should see the kind of environment and buzz in the air that has been so infrequent inside that spaceship on 1st and Kirby in recent years.

Asking for Michigan State in March wouldn't be a rational thing to do. But given where Illinois basketball was, this moment and opportunity is all anyone could ask for right now.

And when that bell sounds at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday night, Groce and his team will walk out to the center of the ring with everything to fight for.

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