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Illinois basketball’s 10-0 start rewarded with No. 10 ranking

Illinois' BrandPaul dunks breakaway during second overtime an NCAA college basketball game against MinnesotTuesday Dec. 27 2011 Champaign Ill. Illinois

Illinois' Brandon Paul dunks on a breakaway during the second overtime of an NCAA college basketball game against Minnesota on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 81-72 in double overtime. (AP Photo/Robert K. O'Daniell)

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Updated: January 12, 2013 6:23AM

How quickly things change.

A popular pick to finish ninth in the Big Ten, Illinois rose to No. 10 in the country in both major polls Monday on the heels of its 85-74 victory Saturday at Gonzaga, which had been No. 10.

That left coach John Groce, who had a lot of selling to do a month ago, graciously welcoming converts to the increasingly crowded Illini
bandwagon. He also cautioned Illinois’ 10-0 start is just that — a start.

‘‘Any time you can win, it builds credibility in where you’re going,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We try our hardest not to change disposition, but it certainly has created an excitement. I’m happy for Illini Nation.

‘‘The margin for error is so small. We feel blessed to get to 10-0. But we still have a long way to go. As long as we have the mind-set that we’re going to take it one day at a time and get better, we’ll do just that. I think we can get better.’’

The Illini are ranked in the top 10 for the first time since March 6, 2006, when Dee Brown was playing his last few games in an orange headband. But what really matters to Groce — and to his players, he hopes — is performing well Tuesday against Norfolk State (7 p.m., 560-AM).

Brandon Paul, who was named the Big Ten player of the week after his 35-point performance at Gonzaga, sure sounds as though he gets it. Paul knows Illinois started 10-0 last season before melting down and finishing 17-15.

‘‘We have to keep our foot on the gas pedal,’’ Paul said. ‘‘We’ve been in this same position, nationally ranked. None of that matters.’’

Four starters are gone from the 15th-seeded Norfolk State team that stunned second-seeded Missouri 86-84 in the NCAA tournament last March. But Groce, who wants to see good habits and progress, is under no illusion about who the Illini are. He saw his team sneak past Gardner-Webb
63-62 on a late three-pointer by Tyler Griffey on Nov. 25 and survive 72-64 against Western Carolina last Tuesday after
being tied with less than six minutes left.

And he thinks his players are starting to grasp that.

‘‘Where do we go from here? That’s our theme as we approach Norfolk State,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Our guys are very aware of Norfolk State and what they did last year. The reality is, our guys are starting to figure out that if we play with toughness and togetherness, we can play
really good basketball that gives you a chance on any night. If we don’t, we’re not very good.

‘‘Western Carolina might have been our worst game, and [Gonzaga] might have been the best. Having that mental edge and being ready to go every single day is something we’ve talked about from the beginning. We’ve made strides in that area, but we’ve got some room for growth there.’’

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