It’s all in the wrist for Illinois basketball
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com March 18, 2013 12:19AM
In this photo provided by the University of Illinois, Illinois head coach John Groce, center, with his son, Conner, and team react after learning their NCAA college basketball tournament assignment during a Selection Sunday viewing party, Sunday, March 17, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois is scheduled to play Colorado in the second round on Friday in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/University of Illinois, Mark Jones)
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Updated: March 18, 2013 5:57PM
When the Illinois basketball team gathered Sunday to watch the unveiling of this year’s NCAA tournament bracket, the questions were ‘‘Where?’’ and ‘‘Who?’’
There was no ‘‘if.’’
Considering where the Illini were a year ago — where they were even six weeks ago — that’s a tribute to their resolve as well as their talent.
When Illinois, which received a No. 7 seed, lines up against No. 10 Colorado in Austin, Texas, on Friday, it will know where it’s been. And how it got here.
All season, the Illini have worn orange wristbands bearing ‘‘3-19-13’’ — the date the tournament begins. Those bands have been a constant reminder of their goal and helped them to reach it.
‘‘It is a motivational factor,’’ senior guard Brandon Paul said. ‘‘When people ask me about it, it’s even more of a reminder. I’ve been at Walmart getting groceries and someone would ask me, ‘What’s on your wrist?’ I’d explain it. It would kind of take me back to what our goal was.
‘‘It’s about advancing, about playing hard. We’re excited about the challenge ahead of us.’’
Colorado (21-11, 10-8) is a strong-rebounding, middle-of-the-Pac-12 team that played its way into the tournament with defense and a solid RPI of 38, one notch ahead of Illinois’ 39 on ESPN.com. The Buffaloes’ strength of schedule (19) was high, as was Illinois’ (8).
Colorado is making its second straight NCAA trip under third-year coach Tad Boyle. Five players average at least nine points.
Spencer Dinwiddie, a 6-6 sophomore guard, leads with 15.6 ppg.
‘‘They’re well-balanced and great at getting to the foul line, so we’re going to have to play hard without fouling,’’ Illini coach John Groce said. ‘‘They’re rated in the top 30 in the country defensively [by KenPom.com], so it’s going to be a great challenge but one we’re looking forward to.’’
Matchups will matter, particularly with 6-7 junior forward Andre Roberson, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year and a first-team all-conference selection. He averages 10.9 points and 11.3 rebounds.
But Illinois has found ways to sidestep obstacles. Its victories over two No. 1 seeds, Indiana and Gonzaga, plus wins over No. 2 Ohio State and No. 6 Butler, demonstrate that.
The Illini will need to make shots, lock in on defense and generally handle their assignments.
In simply getting this far, they have shown their determination to do that. A year ago, they were a broken crew saying tearful goodbyes to fired coach Bruce Weber and NBA-bound sophomore big man Meyers Leonard. After losing at home to Wisconsin on Feb. 3, Illinois was 2-7 in the Big Ten. And with Indiana coming to Champaign before a trip to Minnesota, the ‘‘3-19-13’’ wristbands didn’t seem to fit.
But the Illini reeled off five victories, and here they are, packing for Austin.
‘‘This was, so to speak, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I asked them to trust me and not stare at the pot of gold, but to stare at each step, each thing we faced. The guys really bought into that. I can’t thank them enough for how open-minded they’ve been, how willing, how coachable. It’s their team.’’
The goal now is to stick around.
‘‘Now it’s up to us to make the most of it,’’ said Groce, who prodded Ohio to victories as a No. 13 and No. 14 seed. ‘‘I told the guys, there’s nothing like advancing in the tournament.’’
He ought to know.