We Needed That November 22, 2012
These Players Needed That
Tyler Griffey needed those two dagger threes. He was great in Maui – all six games this season, really – but he still needed a moment. It’s his senior year, and the first three years certainly didn’t go as he had planned. Now, in his final go around, it couldn’t be going better. Those two back-to-back dagger three pointers were The Moment in this game. From a scary 7 point lead to a solid 13 point lead in what seemed like 15 seconds. Attaboy, Tyler.
DJ Richardson needed this Maui win. He was Big Ten Freshman of the Year three years ago, and then sophomore struggles and more junior struggles. By the middle part of last year, he appeared to be so broken that most of us thought he’d never return. Tonight? He’s back. 14 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and two beautiful baseline drives at key moments in the game that told the world “yes, I’m more than just a three point shooter”.
Yes, “the world”. It’s the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and millions of people are out and about. Most of them at bars. With flatscreen TV’s. Showing ESPN. From Charlotte to Spokane, bros are leaning over to their bros at the bar and saying “hey man, Illinois looks pretty good.”
Man did we need that.
This Fanbase Needed That
If you hang around other Illini fans on the internet – in the comments here, on a message board, on Twitter, etc. – you know that we’re not a very happy bunch of late. Quite bitter, actually. We just endured the worst six year stretch of Illini basketball since the 1970′s, and this fall, Illini football fell off it’s third cliff in 15 years.
We fight with each other, we try to one-up each other with declarations of players and coaches being busts – we’re just generally very sour. So this run through Maui couldn’t have come at a better time. No, that doesn’t do it justice – this run through Maui was a glass of water in a 104 degree day at the Grand Canyon climbing the 16 miles up the trail from the bottom to the top after your water jug went dry. Every ounce of this fanbase needed that.
I just checked a few postgame threads on Illini message boards – it’s after midnight and nobody is sleeping. Lots and lots of virtual high fives right now. Yeah, there are a few “it was just USC, Chaminade, and Butler” folks, but they’re shouted down with the 57th “ILLINI BASKETBALL IS FUN AGAIN” declaration. Man did we need this.
John Groce Needed That
When we went looking for a coach in March, many of you – myself included – would have much rather had the guy on the other bench tonight. Some still do. And nearly everyone wanted Shaka Smart. John Groce arrived under nearly the exact circumstances as Tim Beckman: probably the third choice, maybe the fourth or fifth, unknown coach from the MAC.
Things have started just a tiny bit differently for Groce. But even before this weekend, there were still lots of questions about Groce. He brought in a great recruiting class in his first go-around, headlined by Kendrick Nunn, but it could have been even more outstanding. He finished second for Tyler Ennis. He finished second for Demetrius Jackson. He finished second for Xavier Rathan-Mayes. And just a few days ago he lost 2014 recruit Keita Bates-Diop to his old boss Thad Matta. If we’re going to climb back to the very top, we’re going to have to win some of those.
So in this fan environment, and with a stinging local recruiting loss just this week, John Groce needed a solid run through Hawaii. That’s just what he got. A destruction of USC (who beat Texas and then hung with Marquette today before losing), a beatdown of Chaminade, and then a decisive, steady, any-punch-you-can-do-I-can-do-better win over a tough Butler team that just beat UNC and Marquette.
And don’t think recruits aren’t noticing. Oh, hi there, top-5-player-in-2014 Cliff Alexander on Twitter tonight:
i think its the new coaching staff thats why Illinois playing like this
John Groce needs that.
I Needed That
It reminds me of those days where I’d stay up to watch SportsCenter after every single Illini basketball win. Even if we weren’t ranked, I wanted to revel in the 23 seconds of highlights in case they showed them. I lived for the 1:30 am SportsCenter with Craig Kilborn and Karl Ravech back then – once they showed me the Illini highlights (many times from a game I had just attended), I could sleep. Seeing our highlights on SportsCenter made me feel like we were relevant in the world of college athletics. Back in the mid-90′s, we were fighting to regain relevance again. Then we climbed to the mountain top. Then we tumbled all the way down.
And now it feels like we’re officially on our way back. Yes, this is a crazy difficult Big Ten – three teams in the Top 5. We won’t be “back” until we’re one of those top-5 teams again. And as John Groce said in the postgame radio interview, we still have a long way to go. We have to keep improving every game if we’re going to compete in this deep conference.
But I’m beyond satisfied with what I’ve seen so far. We never once trailed in Maui. If I recall correctly, we jumped out to a 10 point lead before we reached 25 points in all three games. Brad Stevens made some nice defensive adjustments, so Groce punched back. We needed to get into the lane, so Abrams and Paul took the ball to the hoop. Butler cut it to 6, and we counterpunched. And then Brandon Paul iso to close it out. Beautiful.
I got texts from friends tonight saying things like “this is so much fun!” – it’s been a long time since that happened. My step-dad and I were texting back and forth tonight, things like “love the coaching” and “playing as a team” – it’s been quite a while since we could do that. My mom will say something like “how about those Illini!” when I arrive at her house tomorrow for Turkey Day – I haven’t heard that phrase in years.
Yeah, we all needed this. We all needed a chance to sit around the Thanksgiving table and, when moms do their mommiest thing ever and ask everyone to say what they’re thankful for, get to say “Illini basketball” again. We’re officially on our way back, and it couldn’t feel better.