BY CHAD DARE
A year ago, the Illinois Fighting Illini left the Big Ten Tournament with a myriad of questions hanging over the program.
This year, there is really only one question for the fans of the Orange & Blue to ponder — where are we going in the NCAA Tournament?
“Right now, we’re just excited for (today) to see where we go,’’ said Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, who has appeared in just one NCAA Tournament in his collegiate career. “We had a goal going into the season, so we’re excited to see what happens.’’
And that was definitely not the attitude after last year’s Big Ten Tournament loss to Iowa.
“This year, it’s a little easier because we believe that we have done enough to be in the NCAA Tournament,’’ Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu said. “Last year, we really didn’t know what was going to happen with the postseason or other things.
“We still don’t know what will officially happen, but it’s going to fun on Sunday to watch the pairings show.’’
All year, Illinois first-year coach John Groce has been inspiring his players to achieve the NCAA Tournament goal by having the players wear rubber bracelets that read “TNT” and “3-19-13.”
The “TNT” was the team’s slogan of Toughness and Togetherness, while “3-19-13” is the opening date of this year’s tournament in Dayton, Ohio.
“I told the guys when we were talking — we won seven of our last 11 games,’’ said Groce, reaffirming the idea that Illinois will be in the NCAA Tournament field. “The losses being at Michigan, at Iowa, and at Ohio State — those teams were 51-5 at home and then you have the loss to Indiana.’’
Groce also pointed out that his team has multiple wins over Top-25 RPI teams.
As of Saturday, Indiana had the most Top-25 RPI victories with seven, Duke was next with six and then came Kansas and Georgetown with five each, followed by a group of six schools, including Illinois, with four.
“We’ve played pretty good basketball,’’ Groce said. “We’re capable of playing really good basketball.’’
The Illini have also shown a great deal of growth during the 2013 portion of their season.
A year ago, Illinois lost 12 of its final 14 games to finish the year at 17-15, costing Bruce Weber his coaching position.
This year when the Illini lost six of seven and dropped to 2-7 in league play, it could have been a repeat performance but that didn’t happen.
“The thing I appreciated the most about them is their resiliency,’’ Groce said. “These guys care a lot about one another. They care about Illinois and about our team, about doing well, about playing well.
“This time of year that’s really important.’’
Instead of collapsing in the final months, the Illini won seven of their final 11, including an upset of the Indiana Hoosiers on Feb. 7.
And the team believes that resilient attitude will serve them well in the postseason.
“That’s a word to describe us a team,’’ said Illinois senior Tyler Griffey. “No matter where we are playing or what tournament we are in or who were playing, we will be ready to go next week.’’
But Griffey didn’t talk about the NCAA Tournament, he just knew the Illini would still be playing basketball this week.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday,’’ he said. “That’s up to the selection committee.’’
The Illinois team took Saturday off and the Illini will watch the NCAA Selection Show at 5 p.m. today.