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Illinois off to hot start no one saw coming

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 11:14 p.m.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Illinois forward Tyler Griffey drives against Iowa guard Matt Gatens in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the first round of the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Last weekend, Illinois' surprising unbeaten start was 4.4 seconds away from running head-on into a wall.

Gardner-Webb, an opponent any Big Ten school is expected to beat at home, was up by two with the clock winding down on the strength of a banked-in 3-pointer, the kind of good-grief shot that tells the opponent it just might not be their night.

A season ago, Illinois probably would have cracked under that pressure. That team — essentially the same group of players — lost 12 of its last 14, missed the NCAA tournament and saw its coach fired.

Not this time.

Senior forward Tyler Griffey buried a long 3 for the win.

The Illini (8-0) woke up the next day ranked 22nd in the country. So far they've won the Maui Invitational title, blowing out Butler in the championship, and are averaging 11 3-pointers a game.

That's more than any team in the country, and this start is more than anyone expected after the big collapse.

What turned last year's fragile team into this tough, hot-shooting bunch? Some point to the relentlessly upbeat new coach, John Groce.

“Positive encouragement goes a really long way,” Griffey said. “He is very big on that.”

A 15-3 start last season included wins over two ranked teams, Gonzaga and Ohio State.

But Illinois then had a head-scratching loss to Penn State, a defeat that started something rolling downhill that neither the players nor coach Bruce Weber could stop. Weber lost his job and Groce — after at least two higher-profile coaches said no — was hired.

Groce has gone to great lengths to say he won't judge these players by that collapse. But he believes what they went through is a source of strength.

“They've seen so much, these guys,” he said.

If Weber was the good-guy coach who slowly lost the team, Groce is the energetic newcomer who came to town to help them pick themselves up again. It isn't just the positive approach, the players say. Groce says he's tough on them, particularly senior Brandon Paul, when he needs to be.

“I was on him in the film session now. I mean, in was on him,” Groce said. “And that sends a message to the other guys — ‘Whoa, like man, he's going at him, man, everybody's held accountable around here.'”

They enjoy the up-tempo style Groce preaches, too. He encourages them to push the ball up the floor, to take shots — a bunch of them, even if they miss.

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