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Illinois has turned program around from low last March

Difference that a year makes

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 12:18 a.m. CST
Caption
(AP)
Illinois' Tyler Griffey and Indiana's Victor Oladipo go after a rebound during the first half of Friday's Big Ten Tournament game. After missing the NCAA Tournament last year, the Illini are a No. 7 seed heading into Friday's game against Colorado.

Illinois' biggest postseason event a season ago was an emotional goodbye news conference by Bruce Weber after he was fired.

Last season's pity party has been replaced by a March Gladness.

The Illini celebrated a return to the NCAA tournament Sunday, when they earned a No. 7 seed and a meeting with No. 10 Colorado in Austin, Texas, on Friday. A Round of 32 game in the East Region potentially would pit Illinois against No. 2 seed Miami.

"It gives us a little bit of an edge," senior Brandon Paul said of the Illini's past. "We're a lot better this year. The coaching change was against our powers, but we came in with the mindset whatever coaching staff came in we were going to be on the same page as them."

Illinois players' open-mindedness to coach John Groce might have opened a new door for them.

The Illini had been invited to only two of the last five NCAA tournaments. Since reaching the Final Four in 2005, they have won only two tournament games.

The Illini saw a constant reminder of their goal to return to March basketball. Groce, who was hired last April after taking Ohio to the Sweet 16, gave each player a plastic orange wristband with the date 3-19-13 on it.

The first day of the NCAA tournament.

"It is a motivational factor," Paul said. "Guys wear it every day. I don't think Coach Groce took it off. I've been in Wal-Mart getting groceries and someone asks what's on your wrist. It kind of takes you back to what your goal is."

The Illini achieved that mission by making a midseason U-turn.

After falling to 2-7 at the start of Big Ten play, they went on a five-game winning streak and ended the season winning seven of 11.

"They had to grind it out and be really tough in parts of the season where maybe others doubted them," Groce said.

Colorado similarly reversed course after starting the Pac-12 1-4 to finish with a 10-8 conference record. Five players average at least nine points, led by 15.6 points from guard Spencer Dinwiddie.

Rebounding is a strength for the Buffaloes (21-11), behind 11.3 per game from forward Andre Roberson, a Texas native who will make a homecoming.

"They're a very good team from one of the best leagues in the country, if not the best," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said of Illinois. "They're a quality basketball team, and we've got our work cut out for us."

The Illini need to improve their shooting. In going 1-3 in their last four games, they have shot only 32.5 percent from the field while hitting just 28.1 percent of 3-pointers.

D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams especially need to relocate their shot, combining for 22.7 percent shooting during the span.

"We have the capability of being explosive offensively in shot-making," Groce said. "We have several guys who can do that."

Despite losing three of the last four, Groce said the Illini's season in the Big Ten and a strong nonconference will help.

"We've seen a lot of different styles, a lot of great environments, a lot of great basketball teams, a lot of great coaches," he said. "I think our schedule prepared us to see everything you could see."

They're hoping to see a lot more and appreciate a different perspective than last season.

"We finally saw our name called," Paul said. "It was pretty much a blessing."

Up first: Illinois vs. Colorado, 3:40 p.m. Friday (TNT)

Last NCAA tournament win: 2011, beat UNLV 73-62 in first round.

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