CHAMPAIGN — Since the day he was hired as coach, John Groce has consistently used one word to describe the style of play he envisions for the University of Illinois.
Groce likes an aggressive offense and wants a defense that forces turnovers and quickly attacks in transition.
Ideally, he likes players who can handle the ball without dribbling it off their knee or an opponent’s foot. And when he talks about attacking with the basketball, he doesn’t necessarily mean rushing the ball from one baseline to the other. There are subtler ways to move the ball inside an opponent’s defense.
Corresponding with the current four-game winning streak is an Illini team that is finally embracing the intent of Groce’s attacking style.
We’re seeing Tracy Abrams drive the ball to the rim more than ever.
We’re seeing D.J. Richardson settle for fewer jump shots and push the ball inside.
We’re seeing Brandon Paul try to use his athleticism, even if he has a bothersome habit of trying to turn every drive into a plea for a foul call.
Heck, we’re even seeing Tyler Griffey attack.
OK, Griffey will never be known for his stylish ability to put the ball on the floor. But rather than automatically settle for a 3-point shot, Griffey more and more has been taking a couple of bounces and getting a 14-foot shot instead of a 22-footer.
At the same time, Illinois has also been getting more post touches from Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin.
And every time Illinois gets the ball inside, it seems like it loosens up shooting opportunities from 3-point distance. As defenses brace for the possibility of Illinois attacking the basket — or simply attacking into the paint — Richardson, Abrams, Griffey and Myke Henry are finding better looks from the 3-point line.
Part of this change in the way Illinois has diversified its offense is what Groce is referring to when he says, “Guys are learning to trust the system and they’re understanding what we’re asking of them.”
An interpretation of this is that earlier in the year it was just too easy to settle for 3-pointers. And early in the season Illinois was making enough of them to be successful.
But as the shooting cooled off, as Groce predicted it inevitably would, Illinois was faced with two choices.
It could continue to launch away and rise or fall in direct proportion to the field goal percentage.
Or it could diversify the offense by mixing in more attacking plays that got the ball closer to the rim and on occasion landed them at the free throw line.
Illinois opted for diversification and there’s no question this team is more difficult to guard because of it. That has helped Illinois get past teams in the second half of the Big Ten season that it lost to in the first half. I’m talking about Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern.
At this point, the MVP of this Illini team is D.J. Richardson, and the fact that he has played so well is a testament to his perseverance and proof that old dogs can learn new tricks.
I’ve found Richardson to be a frustrating player over the years. He has teased us with his potential — offensively and defensively — but never been consistent enough to be viewed as the leader of a highly successful team.
That could change in this his senior season.
Groce has been a believer all along.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence now,” Groce said. “He’s seeing the ball go in.
“He has been rock solid. His assists-to-turnovers ratio is good. He guards the other team’s best perimeter player and he’s done those things all year.
“The biggest thing is that he has figured out when you give more to others — to teammates — you get 10-fold in return. He plays the game the right way.
“He loves playing at Illinois and putting on that jersey. Because of that, he has a very free and clear mind and is able to live in the present and lock in on the moment. That’s a big reason he’s playing so well.”
I think this team reached a point when it figured out there is a greater reward in responding to some of Groce’s edicts — like the attacking style — than they initially understood.
I think they’ve discovered this together and it has energized them rebounding the ball and tracking down those 50-50 balls that go to whichever team gets there first.
In the years ahead, Illinois should be even better at carrying out Groce’s game plan.
For one thing, he’ll be recruiting players who are naturally better ball-handlers.
For another, his “system” will become ingrained as part of a culture. That’s tough to do in Year One.
In the meantime, Illinois’ winning streak should reach five on Thursday when Penn State, 0-13 in the league, comes to town.
I’m not suggesting this team is unbeatable. But as they’ve dialed into what Groce is teaching, the Illini are playing their best basketball of the season.