By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) On Sunday night, after his Illinois basketball team blew the doors off Coppin State in a 114-56 romp at State Farm Center, coach John Groce said that he knew which version of his Illini would show up for the game.
Even if the rest of us didn’t.
“I woke up this morning and I told my wife, ‘They’re going to play today,’ ” Groce told reporters. “They played.”
With a record-tying 15 three-pointers helping to spark runs of 16-0, 14-0, 15-0 and 12-0, they certainly did. And by doing so, the Illini looked like the polar opposite of the squad that just two days earlier had struggled throughout a shaky 80-71 victory over Georgia Southern in the season opener.
Now, as for who the Illini truly are this season, well, that probably falls somewhere in between these two yin-yang performances. It’s too early for us to really tell.
But this much we do know for sure: If Groce is to meet expectations in his third year and truly cement himself as the guy to elevate the Illinois progam, then Jekyll and Hyde are going to have to stop suiting up for his Illini.
Because they’ve been in the lineup way too often the past two years.
During Groce’s first season in Champaign in 2012-13, for example, his team looked great while rolling to a 13-1 record during nonconference, only to then pull an immediate about-face and look awful while losing seven of its first nine in the Big Ten. Then, quite miraculously, Illinois immediately switched gears yet again to win seven of its final 11 games to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Last season followed a starkly similar pattern as Illinois started the year a strong 13-2 before abruptly falling off a cliff and losing its next eight in a row and 10 of 11. Then, the Illlini suddenly donned a different identity once more in winning five of the last seven games before ultimately falling short of NCAA Tournament and settling for an NIT bid.
This season, there can be no settling for Illinois. If the expectation over at Memorial Stadium was for struggling football coach Tim Beckman to make a bowl game in his third year, then the expectation at State Farm Center for Groce must be to make the NCAA Tournament.
The good news is that with the addition of shooters Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks, who combined to shoot 9-of-13 on 3-pointers on Sunday night, and freshman jumping jack Leron Black (18 points off the bench), Groce appears to actually have the horses to make a run to the Big Dance.
The bad news is that the schedule — which involves facing five nonconference Power 6 foes away from State Farm Center and has four of the first five Big Ten games on the road — is quite daunting.
In his third year, Groce needs to navigate those dangerous waters and find a route to March Madness. And to do so, Illinois can’t continue to have dramatic swings, whether they be between single games like this weekend or between big bunches of them like the past two seasons.
On Sunday, sophomore Malcolm Hill explained the Illini’s lackluster Friday showing to the Champaign News-Gazette, saying, “We had the too-cool mindset; we were probably feeling ourselves a little bit. We had to get out of that funk because we can have that sometimes.”
After two years of too many funks, the Illini can’t have those anymore.
The third time around needs to be the charm, and Groce surely knows it.