SPOKANE, Wash. — Illinois saw Gonzaga storm out to an 8-0 lead Saturday night, sinking shot after shot as the Illini appeared to be headed toward an inevitable squashing by a Sasquatch-like Bulldogs frontcourt.
But those opening minutes are what tell coach John Groce it is OK to feel a little optimistic about this squad.
"I thought we were capable of playing good basketball against anybody in the country [before the game]," he said. "The thing they showed me is — and I can't emphasize it enough — the beginning of the game when we got stung, they didn't flinch. They just kept playing. That's a sign of good things moving forward."
The No. 13 Illini (10-0) took a punch from No. 10 Gonzaga and countered for an 85-74 victory at McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Bulldogs fell to 110-8 and proved the Illini indeed deserve to be mentioned among top-10 teams.
The Illini are learning early how to form calluses that will serve them well in the Big Ten.
The conference was supposed to have a host of top-10 teams. Illinois was not counted among them.
It's hard to picture Illinois giving chase to Indiana – hard to picture almost any team in the nation doing that, save Duke. Michigan is a step above as well, but the Illini proved their legitimacy in what should be an exciting first season of Groce's tenure.
Groce, players said, has changed the culture around the team. The lifeless, woe-is-me attitude from last season has vanished.
"Coach Groce is obviously an amazing [coach]," said Brandon Paul, who scored 35 points Saturday. "Just his energy, when he comes in the gym, or we have dinner, or we're out as team, it's always at the top. It picks us up as players. We want to play hard for him and he does a great job coaching us."
Groce was as complimentary to Paul, who leads the Illini with 19.5 points per game. He called the senior "one of the best guards in the country."
"He's in attack mode right now," Groce said. "He's learning how to make guys better. What he did a good job of was recognizing some switches and mismatches and then pulling it out. He made really good decisions. He'd probably tell you last year in a game like that he'd probably get a little jump shot happy."
The Bulldogs admitted they had no answer for Paul.
"He looked like a high-level NBA guy," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "He can get a shot any time he wants and we were doing a variety of things with him by trapping him and running different guys at him, but we just did not have a guy that could guard him one-on-one."
Groce preaches "toughness and togetherness." And nothing showed that like the resiliency that the Illini have displayed this season with last-second shots to win at Hawaii and against Gardner-Webb, coming back from 16 points down against the Warriors, and by winning on the road at Gonzaga.
The Illini host Norfolk State today and can't afford a letdown.
"We have the capability to be a really good basketball team," Groce said. "But we have to be consistent with it."