Resiliency on the Rise

The resilient nature of the Illinois basketball team has brought back both success and expectations.

CHAMPAIGN – As coaches often do, John Groce routinely cites quotes and viewpoints and philosophies learned from his various mentors along the way.

During Tuesday's meet with the press, Groce lectured on a particular saying of his former college coach at Taylor University, Paul Patterson.

"That kids at 18 to 22 years old can forgive and forget faster than you think, then maybe coaches do. I think that's certainly true," Groce said.

"I think for the most part 18 to 22-year-olds are probably a little more resilient then we give them credit for."

The term resilient has frequently been thrown around in the wake of Illinois' back-to-back wins over No. 1 Indiana and then-ranked Minnesota.

The victories came after six losses in the previous seven games, a stretch the Illini were able to forget about and move forward as if it never happened. To win amid such circumstances certainly was resiliency defined.

Given that the Illini were down by double digits in both those games and fought back to win – well, that's resiliency amplified.

A season-long team motto, ‘toughness and togetherness' was on display in the upset of what is still considered to be the best team in the country in Indiana and avenging an earlier home loss at Minnesota.

The traits weren't new developments according to Groce. He says that although the team opened conference play with a 2-7 record he saw improvement in the works for weeks, especially in the four games leading up to last Thursday's matchup with the Hoosiers.

There may not have been instant gratification in the form of victories. But still, Groce saw strides being made in all facets of the game during practice. Perhaps these small steps in the right direction weren't obvious displays during games in January, when fans and those in the media were drawing their own conclusions after each defeat, but Groce felt his team was on the right track.

"I think sometimes what happens is people assume because you get beat you're not playing well or you're not getting better," Groce said. "Or because you win you must be playing great and getting better. That's not the case. We look at it much more objectively than that in terms of, are we executing what we want to get done on the offensive end? The defensive end? And are individual players getting better?"

Groce saw all those things on a daily basis in practice, which let him know better days were ahead. Keeping the course, for the players' part, during the tough stretch of losses was the true test.

"You've got to fight that temptation," Groce said of combating negativity. "I think we all do."

Given the senior-laden structure of the roster, past experiences and the vocal variety of leadership wasn't hard to muster. Senior D.J. Richardson says there was no rock-bottom moment. Nobody looked to press the panic button.

Instead, Richardson said progression had to come from "just being mature," as he and the team captains called a player's only meeting prior to the Nebraska game on Jan. 22 so everybody could speak their mind.

The Illini won that game. And it was around that time that Groce started feeling confidence that his team was getting better. Despite that sentiment, the team dropped the next three games.

At that point the season could have unraveled. Improvement was evident, but victories weren't paralleling those gains. Groce's answer was to increase the positive reinforcement, initiating a snowball of confidence that rolled downward through his staff and into the player's mentality.

"The assistant coaches do such a great job with their position groups of connecting with our guys," Groce said. "I think that's really, really important."

Once again though, Illinois found itself down by as many as 14 against Indiana. Still trailing by 10 with less than five minutes left versus the Hoosiers, the season looked to be running off a cliff and falling to failure.

And then the resiliency kicked in. The attribute that helped the team overcome double-digit deficits in road games against Hawaii and Gonzaga in November and to keep showing up to practice in January with the mindset to get better was put to work. It was the seniors who matched the lyrics to the music.

Richardson scored eight straight points. Sam McLaurin cut off Victor Oladipo and forced a turnover on the crucial final Indiana possession. Brandon Paul inbounded a pass to Tyler Griffey who hit the game winning layup at the buzzer.

"It was a great moment, for me personally and for our team," Griffey said.

Three days later, the Illini found themselves down 12 in the first half at Minnesota. With the momentum created days earlier in danger of going to waste, the seniors once again led a resilient charge.

Richardson, Paul and McLaurin teamed up on a 17-4 scoring run to take the lead at halftime. Griffey finished with a game-high 16 points, including three 3-pointers in the second half when scoring was hard to come by.

More importantly, the win over the Golden Gophers marked the first time this season Illinois won while scoring in the 50s. That's an obvious nod to better play on the defensive end, which in McLaurin's opinion is the reason for the upswing.

"You notice once we consistently get stops is when things start going right for us," he said.

The wins came when Illinois needed them in the most desperate way and were earned by players who were rewarded for staying the course and keeping the faith.

What changed in the approach? The game plan? Practice strategy?

Nothing differed, according to Groce. Everything remained the same except for the outcome.

The improvements he saw in practice manifested into shots going in, defensive intensity ramping up and increased trust in system and teammates alike.

"We're just going to encourage each other, stay positive, say positive things to everybody," Griffey said. "It's really kind of done wonders for our communication. We're helping people pick each other up, and it's showing on the court."

What those two resilient efforts did was open the path to the NCAA Tournament. After having played four ranked opponents in the last five games, Illinois' schedule in the coming weeks is much more inviting. It begins with a home date with Purdue tonight at 8:00 p.m., a matchup the Illini are expected to win. Illinois also will be favorites in games at Northwestern and at home versus Nebraska and Penn State. Road trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan round out the slate.

Regardless of the opponent or circumstance, Groce says he expects the same of his players. He still wants improvement at both ends of the floor. He still wants positive attitudes from his coaches and his leaders.

And maybe most of all, he wants the resiliency to remain as a vital attribute and key motivating force.

"We've got to continue to have that mindset that we can continue to get better, and I think we can," Groce said. "Continue to work, make less mistakes and continue to learn and grow within the system, which I think our guys have done. I think it's important to have that mindset at this time of year. I think the teams that focus on getting better every day in February and March when it starts to become a grind a little bit are the teams that get better at the end of the year and end up maxing out and reaching their potential. We want to be one of those teams."


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