CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach John Groce has a simple definition of his type of player.
“We want to be gentlemen off the court, and nasty, tough dudes on the court,’’ he said. “I think these guys exemplify that.’’
And through just two games of the Big Ten season, his Fighting Illini has used that toughness to get off to 2-0 league record for the first time since 2011 as they delivered a knockout blow to the Penn State Nittany Lions, 75-55, on Saturday afternoon at the State Farm Center.
Not so ironically, it was an open-handed punch by Penn State’s D.J. Newbill to the head of Illinois freshman Kendrick Nunn with 8 minutes, 38 seconds left in the contest that defined the toughness in the Illinois program.
The Fighting Illini (13-2 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten) responded with a 18-6 run to seal the deal against the Nittany Lions, who fall to 9-6 overall and 0-2 in the league.
“Basically, just staying together, not letting things like that get into our head,’’ said Illinois senior Jon Ekey, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. “We are there for each other, no matter where we are. We’ve got each other backs, no matter what.’’
According to Groce, the key leader during that skirmish was junior guard Tracy Abrams.
“That was Abrams a lot and the other guys chipping in,’’ he said. “Tracy has been through a lot of wars. He really controlled that huddle with his leadership, talking about poise and composure. He talked about finishing the game the right way.
“He has grown by leaps and bounds, not only non-verbally but also vocally.’’
Being able to handle that difficult situation is something that Groce has stated since his first day with the Illini.
“We try to be as unflappable as we can be, but we understand that you get thrown curve balls in life,’’ he said. “You get thrown curve balls thrown at you in a possession, in a game, in a season — we want to make sure that we handle those with great toughness and great togetherness.