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Maui title shows Illinois has come long way fast under John Groce

Illinois players staff members are all smiles after winning Maui Invitational title. | Eugene Tanner~AP

Illinois players and staff members are all smiles after winning the Maui Invitational title. | Eugene Tanner~AP

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:34AM

Coach John Groce bristled at the notion that Illinois’ run to the title in the Maui Invitational was diminished by a weaker-than-usual field in the Thanksgiving-week tournament.

‘‘Call [North Carolina coach] Roy Williams and ask him if he thinks Butler’s any good,’’ Groce said, breaking into a chuckle of disbelief. ‘‘I’m sure Texas felt they could have played better, but you can’t control that. The teams we played were good. The environment we played in was tough.’’

It’s true the Maui field, which featured only one ranked team (No. 9 North Carolina), didn’t have its usual shark-infested brackets. In 2000, for example, the Illini — who would share the Big Ten title — lost the Maui final to Arizona, which went on to the Final Four. Two other teams, Connecticut and Maryland, received top-five NCAA seeds.

But that does nothing to diminish what Illinois, which is regrouping under a new coach, accomplished in hoisting the Maui trophy for the first time in four trips to the most prestigious early-season tournament.

While said the Illini’s Division I victories in the tournament came against two teams (USC and Butler) that might not make the NCAA tourney, Butler figures to be in the field of 68.

Among the many positives for Illinois: Every Maui champion since 1986 has gone on to reach the NCAA tournament.

Groce readily agreed his team needs to keep making strides in this young season, beginning with its home game Sunday against Gardner-Webb, which won at DePaul 71-59 and led 38-15 at Iowa before losing 65-56.

‘‘Is [Maui] the end-all, be-all? No,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We still have work to do. We have to rebound better. We have to foul less. We have to execute some things better offensively. By no means have we arrived. At the same time, we feel blessed to have had a chance to play for that trophy and to have won it.’’

What’s especially encouraging to Groce is the way his team played in winning four games in six days, including a tough, come-from-behind road victory at Hawaii before the Maui event.

‘‘I said we’d know a lot more about our team when we got
back, and we do,’’ Groce said. ‘‘The biggest thing I got out of it was our toughness and the resolve we showed.’’

As it turned out, the Illini’s 78-77 overtime victory at Hawaii, which built a 44-28 lead in front of its pumped-up crowd, was their toughest island battle. Illinois never trailed in its three Maui games.

‘‘No question, we got popped in the mouth at the start of the [Hawaii] game,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We weren’t ready, for whatever reason. It was a great experience for us to be able to battle back. We have four seniors who have been through a lot. They stay very poised and very even-keeled. That’s how we want to be.’’

Asked what stood out to him, Groce was understandably positive about the way the Illini are fitting into their roles.

‘‘Tracy Abrams is starting to understand the point-guard position better,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Brandon Paul has done a great job. He was really in attack mode. Tyler Griffey played with a lot of confidence.

‘‘Myke Henry, Devin Langford and Joe Bertrand did a great job off the bench. Nnanna Egwu was really good defensively. And you always know what you’re getting from D.J. Richardson. Even if he’s not making shots, he can influence the game with his leadership. We could be here for an hour if I went into more detail on each guy.’’

The strides an uncertain roster has made in a month under Groce are remarkable. The Maui trophy is proof of that.

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