By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) Inside the Illinois locker room, the Fighting Illini hardly seemed defeated.
About 20 minutes had passed since their failed attempt at beating the Indiana Hoosiers for the second time this season, but there was still a small sense of accomplishment in the room.
“We had a goal going into the season, so we’re excited for Sunday to see what happens,” Illinois guard Brandon Paul said after the 80-64 loss to Indiana.
That goal was to make the NCAA Tournament, and even though none of the players would concede that they will make it into the field of 68, there’s no doubt the Fighting Illini’s name will be called between 5 and 6 p.m. Sunday evening.
“I feel like we have a lot of basketball left,” Paul said.
The Illini have at least 40 minutes left. And because those minutes will be played in an NCAA Tournament venue, they should be proud of what they have accomplished this season.
Could it have been better? Of course. Friday’s loss was a perfect example, as the Hoosiers proved they were a vastly superior team. At times, the Illini offense was stagnant and the defense looked tired.
But for the most part, the effort was there.
“I’m really proud of our guys’ toughness and resiliency,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. “Their ability to keep playing and not tie their defensive effort to shot making in the first half, I think probably made me the most proud.”
Sometimes a little perspective is needed after a loss, and a quick glance at the big picture shows that this season — although not over — was a success.
A year ago, most of these Illini players were left in limbo after their first round loss in the Big Ten Tournament. A day later, Bruce Weber was fired and Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas went to work finding a coach that could capture the attention of a group of underachieving players and build a program for the future at the same time.
Time will tell if Groce will have longterm success at Illinois, but there is little doubt he successfully squeezed out enough remaining talent from this year’s senior class to reach the NCAA Tournament.
That was evident moments after Friday’s loss, when Paul and sophomore guard Tracy Abrams were immediately coaching their teammates on what they need to work on going forward.
“I could hear them talking to the team in there after the game and they said, ‘Hey, we need to play two halves,'” Groce said. ” That’s great. It’s one thing for me to say it, but when peers are saying it to one another, that means even more.”
Fans are always going to want more, but the attitude in Friday’s post game locker room said this: We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished thus far, but we still want more.
“Yeah, definitely,” senior Tyler Griffey said when asked if this season has been a success. “We feel comfortable with Coach Groce and his staff. He’s a coach that makes you want to play hard for and I think we’ve done that throughout the year.”
Now the Illini will attempt to do that in the NCAA Tournament, where the head coach has more recent experience than the players. A year ago, the Illini were watching at home as their future head coach led Ohio to the Sweet 16.
So does Illinois have what it takes to make a similar run? Given that they beat Indiana at home and won at Gonzaga this season, sure.
“I feel like we have a chance with anybody in the nation,” Paul said. “Obviously we have won some tough games.”
The challenge, however, is to play with consistency for a full 40 minutes, something they failed to do in either of their Big Ten Tournament games.
“I feel like once we put two halves together we’ll be in a good position,” Paul added. “Sometimes one half our defense might be off or the next half our offense might be off. Once we put two halves together we’re going to be a force to recon with.”
That force could arrive as soon as Thursday when the second round of the NCAA Tournament starts. Or it might not show up at all at next weekend.
Either way, Illini fans should be able to reflect and call the 2012-13 season a step in the right direction.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.