CHAMPAIGN — It’s been five years since John Groce lived through the punching bag challenge of a Big Ten Conference basketball season.
He was Thad Matta’s lead assistant at Ohio State and he remembers how daunting it was moving from game to game, from one hostile gym to another, from January to February to the cutthroat days of early March.
He remembers how hard it is to win at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich., at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., or at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Beginning Wednesday, those memories will come back into focus. Only this time he’ll be experiencing it as the University of Illinois’ head coach.
“Fortuntely, I’m lucky because I went through it for four years (at Ohio State), although there’s no question it’s different as a head coach,” Groce said.
“It’s a grind. You talk about going through a deal where you can’t get too high or too low.
“You play Tuesday or Wednesday, then you play Saturday or Sunday. And it’s coming at you again and again, home and road, all of them fist fights.
“It’s a great league. Toughness is really important. Execution is really important. And players making plays is important.”
That journey starts Wednesday night at Purdue, and if that game isn’t challenging enough it will be followed by home games against No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday, Jan. 5 and against No. 11 Minnesota on Wednesday, Jan. 9.
It will be interesting to see how Big Ten teams defend Illinois, a team that through its first 10 games was earning national recognition for its
But as the Illini have cooled off from beyond the arc, they have expanded their offensive game with Groce still encouraging open 3-point shots, but urging his perimeter players to put the ball on the floor and drive past charging defenders, attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line in the process.
“I think teams are definitely going to try to take away our 3s,” Paul said after Saturday’s 81-79 victory against Auburn. “But that’s something Tracy (Abrams) and I can do is drive the ball. We
have to get guys to go to the basket, and then we can do a better job of making our free throws. That just comes with practice.”
In the last four games, Illinois has gone to the free throw line 99 times. That’s almost 25 free throws a game. By comparison, last year’s team averaged 16.5 free throw attempts per game.
“There’s no question we’ve emphasized getting to the free throw line more,” Groce said. “We are going to continue to shoot 3s because we’re good at it. But the one thing that has opened up is the ability to drive the ball.”
By design, Abrams drove the ball to the basket and scored with a layup on the first play of the game against Auburn.
By design, the first play of the second half went to center Nnanna Egwu down low for another basket.
Groce’s hope is that once defenses view Illinois as a threat to attack the rim, they will be less aggressive rushing at 3-point shooters.
“As we continue to grow, we’ll have all of those things complement each other more. That’s when you increase your chances of getting to the free throw line,” Groce said.
At times Illinois seems like a poor free throw shooting team. The season average of 70.6 percent is not as bad as it looks, but this group should shoot free throws better.
Groce knows with conference play about to commence, every point counts and every free throw is a potential game-winner in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.