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Illinois basketball coach John Groce stresses mental toughness to team

3-9-07 Staff mug shot Herb Gould. phoby Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

3-9-07 Staff mug shot of Herb Gould. photo by Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 19, 2013 2:21PM



If you want tea and sympathy, go see your aunt. Or Oprah.

John Groce has a terse, to-the-point response when asked about players losing confidence or having their fragile psyches damaged by tough times like that 74-51 spanking the Illini got at Wisconsin on Saturday.

‘‘To be honest, I’m tired of that deal,’’ the first-year Illinois coach said Wednesday. ‘‘I said to the staff today, ‘That’s out, I’m tired of that.’ If they think they’re not going to get hit in the mouth in life, we’re teaching them the wrong things at the University of Illinois. Pretty soon, they’re going to have to deal with a kid being sick, a family emergency. Stuff happens. Deal with it.’’

And yet, because Illinois has become notorious for not dealing with stuff lately, the confidence question hangs in the Central Illinois air like the smog in Beijing.

In 2011, the football team started 6-0, then went 0-6 and never got untracked last fall. Last season, the basketball team started 15-3 but lost 12 of its last 14 games.

Because the No. 23 Illini are 1-3 in the Big Ten since their 13-1 nonconference start, it’s only natural that Illini Nation should be chewing its nails as Illinois prepares for Northwestern on Thursday (7:15 p.m., BTN).

Letting doubt creep in after setbacks is human nature. But there can’t be a lot of room for that in competitive athletics.

‘‘Life hits you in the mouth,’’ Groce said. ‘‘What we’re doing is not easy; life’s not easy. That’s on us. We have no excuses. We have to man up and play. We have to fight. We’ve done that the majority of the year.’’

Some of it isn’t psychological. Projected as the toughest league in the nation, the Big Ten is living up to its hype. At least six teams are looking like NCAA tournament locks. And, all of a sudden, Illinois isn’t one of them.

That and the confidence question are the stuff Groce wants his players to tune out.

The player who really needs to think about the process and not the results is Brandon Paul. Illinois’ star did not shine against the Badgers, who held him to 1-for-11 shooting and a season-low eight points.

‘‘Shots weren’t falling for me,’’ said Paul, who had only three rebounds and no steals or assists. ‘‘I let that affect me on the defensive end. I can’t let that happen.’’

Groce, who doesn’t challenge players in the media as candidly as Bruce Weber, is publicly understanding of Paul, whose shooting woes have increased against tough Big Ten defenses.

‘‘We need Brandon to play better; he knows that,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We need other guys to play better, too.’’

Groce doesn’t deny that confidence is critical.

‘‘When guys’ minds are right, it’s a huge deal,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We’ve had our minds right the majority of the year.’’



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