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Illinois gets some early confidence with Maui Invitational title

BrandPaul Erik Fromm

Brandon Paul, Erik Fromm

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Updated: December 24, 2012 7:25AM

If he won’t join you, beat him.

When Butler’s Brad Stevens wasn’t interested in the Illinois coaching vacancy last spring — after VCU’s Shaka Smart had expressed a similar lack of inter-
est — athletic director Mike Thomas turned to Ohio coach John Groce.

That move was greeted with a lot of whining and yawning.

So what happened? Fate put Groce and Stevens opposite each other in the championship game Wednesday of the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii. All of a sudden, two coaches who have been close friends since they worked together for Thad Matta at Butler in 2000-01 had to try to beat other.

The Illini prevailed 78-61. They never trailed in the game or in the tournament, which also saw them beat USC 94-64 and Chaminade 84-61.

Their immediate reward was hoisting the most prestigious early-season trophy in college basketball.

‘‘Unbelievable,’’ senior forward Tyler Griffey said. ‘‘I haven’t had this much fun playing basketball in a long time.’’

Illinois’ next accolade for its impressive 6-0 start — unless the voters went to bed early
this week — should be a Top 25 ranking.

But the real prize for the Illini getting their act together under Groce after losing 12 of their last 14 games last season might be the promise of continued fun.

‘‘I need to take a deep breath,’’ Groce told ‘‘You see the names on that trophy, and it really puts the quality of this tournament into perspective. The thing I was proudest of was our toughness. Whenever you play Butler, you have to be tough.’’

Six games doesn’t make a season. Illinois learned that the hard way last season, when it started 15-3 and finished 17-15. But there are a lot of reasons to think Groce and his players won’t let that happen.

‘‘Very rarely when you have a new coach come in do the pieces fit [so] well,’’ Stevens said. ‘‘It’s so perfect the way that John likes to play and the way they spread the floor with four shooters and the way that they can shoot the ball. Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.’’

Griffey is a perfect example of that. After scoring in double figures seven times in his first three seasons, he has scored at least 10 points five times in the Illini’s first six games, including all three Maui contests.

And Griffey (11.3 points per game in Maui) is the fourth option
behind guards Brandon Paul (19.7), D.J. Richardson (12.7) and Tracy Abrams (12). Paul was voted the tournament MVP.

More important than scoring, Illinois is playing defense aggressively and Groce is substituting freely to keep his players fresh.

‘‘Do you envision sitting at 6-0?’’ said Groce, who knows the season is just getting under way. ‘‘I’m a little different. I focus on practice every day. We try to get better every day and let the
results take care of themselves.’’

With No. 1 Indiana, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, No. 15 Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota all looking strong, it’s too early to pencil the Illini into the upper echelon of what ought to be a tough Big Ten race.

But it’s not too early to mark them down for a very interesting first season under Groce.

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