CHAMPAIGN – John Groce’s eyes were still slightly red.
Moments earlier he had hoisted his shirtless, giggling son high into the air while standing on the fringe of the basketball bedlam that raged on around him. When Tyler Griffey’s last-instant layup sealed a 74-72 upset of No. 1-ranked Indiana, Groce had doubled over at the waist, exhaling deeply and practically melting into a puddle of emotion.
Now the party was on.
He had coached, exhorted and fist-pumped his University of Illinois basketball team back from the brink of defeat and now, having settled into his chair in the postgame interview area, Groce knew it was nearly time to shift gears.
After some introductory words of gratitude, relief and praise for his players, Groce issued a cautionary warning that coaches feel obligated to do.
“It’s a big win, but in three days we play in Minneapolis against a really good Minnesota team,” said Groce, who was flanked by Griffey and fellow senior Brandon Paul. “When we wake up tomorrow we can’t be absorbed with one game, win or lose.
“We’ll make the trip to Minnesota and hopefully pack our defense like we did late in this game.”
Groce knew the emotions of Thursday’s victory over Indiana were undeniable. He knew his team deserved a few hours of celebration and much later Griffey would say fans were running up to him on the street still delirious from the upset.
But Groce also knows the math of his sport. And the bigger challenge now is the one recent Illini teams have struggled with. It’s the challenge of consistency.
The goal is to reach the NCAA Tournament, something Illini basketball teams have failed to do in three of the last five seasons.
It used to be that a 9-9 league finish accompanied by a strong enough nonconference résumé would be enough to carry a Big Ten team into the tournament.
This season, given the Big Ten’s status as the best conference in the country, 8-10 will probably do the trick. But there’s a chance Illinois could wiggle in at 7-11, given its fast start, several quality wins and a victory over No. 1 that grabbed national attention.
Even to reach 7-11 Illinois has to go 4-4 in its final eight games and five of those are on the road starting with Sunday’s matchup at Minnesota.
Groce has been frustrated by a failure of this team to duplicate sharp practice performances on game day. He has urged this team to “trust our system and trust each other” more, and reminded them that communication on the floor is critical.
“We practiced and prepared the same way,” Groce said, waving off a suggestion that he’d changed the normal routine. “I thought our attitude was off the charts the last few days. It was terrific.
“The only thing we talked about was communicating more, connecting more out there, playing for one another more and trusting more and I thought we did that today.”
Against Indiana, Groce saw signs that maybe his team had finally reached an understanding that could have carryover to future games.
Griffey saw it, too.
“Leading up to this game and all through practice, one big key was trust and communication,” said Griffey, who had his best game since league play began with 14 points and eight rebounds. “Our communication in this game was at an all-time high. It really showed.”
Groce said he never saw shoulders slump, even when he scanned the bench after Illinois had fallen behind by 14 points with less than 13 minutes to play.
“You could tell they were still locked in,” Groce said. “Our whole deal was to chip away at (the lead).
“We took a big step today. Sometimes when we get down like that, you’ve heard me use the phrase, ‘hero ball.’ We get out of character.
“Today we stuck to what we were supposed to do for the full 40 minutes and didn’t flinch. That was a good sign.”
Good, yes. But Groce is taking nothing for granted.
“I’m happy for our seniors, but we have to keep moving forward. There’s no question we played well today. But Sunday’s game has nothing to do with today’s game. We have to do it again. It’s not an automatic.”
Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois men’s basketball for Lee News Service.