- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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“Our main goal throughout the season was just to get better every day, putting 100 percent,” Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul said. “3-19-13 (first day of the NCAA tournament) was on our wrist bands, and when we finally saw our name called it was pretty much a blessing. We were excited about it, and we were excited about the challenge ahead.”
The Illini went 22-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten. Their quality wins included at Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota, who they defeated twice. They are ranked No. 39 in RPI and No. 63 in ESPN’s BPI.
Illinois began the season with 12 consecutive wins and shot up to No. 10 in the AP poll. After a 13-1 non-conference season, the Illini dropped seven of their first nine Big Ten games. They bounced back with a win over No. 1-ranked Indiana on Feb. 7 and closed out the conference season winning six of their final nine games.
“They had that (tournament) goal from the very beginning when I met with (them),” Illinois' first-year coach John Groce said. “They really solidified that as something they wanted to do in the fall when we first got together and talked in particular to our seniors. To see that come to fruition in a way they had to grind it out and be really tough at different parts of the season when maybe others doubted them, but I think it’s a great life lesson for our guys. Certainly not satisfied because we have work to do, but I’m a proud for those guys.”
Groce said after Friday’s loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament he was happy with the way his team was playing headed into the NCAA tournament.
“I would like to play two complete halves defensively and offensively. But I like our mindset,” Groce said. “I like our body language. I like our passion. I thought we really competed in this tournament both days. I thought we really played hard. I thought we played for one another. I think the guys are playing the game right way. Hopefully, we can continue to move forward here in the next few days and figure out how we can put together two halves when we’re defending and playing good offense. I think that’s the next step.”
Illinois did not appear in the NCAA Tournament last season and has been selected twice in the previous five years. The Illini haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005.
Illinois fired Bruce Weber after the program failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season. Groce was hired after taking Ohio to two NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012 in four seasons.