CHAMPAIGN — Almost since the moment he stepped to the microphone at his introductory press conference, John Groce has had someone in his ear yakking about the contest people reverently call, “the Braggin’ Rights game.”
Illinois’ first-year head basketball coach has been given mini-history lessons and told about the exploits of Kenny Battle, Andy Kaufmann and Dee Brown. He’s heard passionate fans describe dramatic victories and heart-wrenching defeats.
He’s been told if he wants to be Santa Claus in the eyes of Illini Nation, just beat Missouri in the St. Louis showdown in late December.
With the 32nd annual Bud Light Braggin’ Rights game about to play out on Saturday, Groce said Thursday he believes he has a pretty good feel for the atmosphere he’s about to experience for the first time and for the ear-splitting sound of 22,000 fans whipped into a pre-Christmas crescendo, 11,000 of them dressed in gold and black, 11,000 of them dressed mostly in orange.
But he made it clear that after each team gets past a couple minutes of nervous energy, there will be an eye of calm in the middle of the hurricane. And there, Groce said, is where the game will be decided.
“I’ve heard about it from the moment I got the job in late March,” said Groce, who Thursday afternoon raced from practice to a press conference in shorts and an orange T-shirt, despite plunging temperatures, howling winds and a rain that was just beginning to turn to snow.
“Our guys are excited to play. You can tell there’s more pep in their step at practice. I thought we’ve been really good the last two days and today was even better than yesterday.”
Groce said he has known Missouri coach Frank Haith, “for a long time,” and one year ago it was Haith who got his first Braggin’ Rights experience.
Haith won that game,
78-74, and had a terrific first season leading the Tigers, despite falling victim to a first-round ambush in the NCAA Tournament.
But only one Missouri player who participated in the Braggin’ Rights game last year will be out there Saturday, although Phil Pressey will be joined by Laurence Bowers, who
played two years ago but sat out last year’s game after a serious knee injury.
This season, the 12th-ranked Tigers have remade the roster, growing deeper with the addition of five Division I transfers and two promising Canadian freshmen.
If Missouri is still trying to find stability while incorporating all the new pieces, Illinois may already have that with a starting group that includes three seniors who seem to overflow with experience and chemistry.
Does that give Illinois the slightest edge?
“One thing we have is experience in playing in this rivalry game, but what does that get you?” Groce asked. “After a few minutes once you’ve adjusted to the excitement? A lot of it comes down to execution, to players making plays.
“We’ve had some great wins so far, and they have as well, and you look at those games and you see players making plays. It will come down to that, as simple as it sounds.”
Groce doesn’t want anyone to think he’s underestimating the deafening lunacy generated in what I consider to be the best neutral court college basketball game played this side of the Final Four.
“I can’t emphasize it enough, everyone has told me the atmosphere is electric and I’m looking forward to that.
“But after four or five minutes, Frank will coach his team and I’ll coach mine and we’ll both try to execute. Being in a rivalry game, we don’t have to worry about guys being amped up. I’m sure players will have their motors running.”
At the risk of reading too much into it, Groce himself was in hyper-drive at his own press conference Thursday.
A self-confessed coffee fanatic, he seemed to be running on high octane caffeine after what appeared to be a six-cup Starbuck’s morning.
Brandon Paul, the do-it-all senior for the Illini, said he hasn’t bothered to tell Groce what he’s about to experience.
“You try to prepare for every game the same, but no matter what anyone says, it’s a lot different,” said Paul, who is 0-for-3 in his Braggin’ Rights career. “It’s an incredible atmosphere and it’s a blessing to play in this every year.
“I know (Groce) is a smart guy, and he’s knows what he’s getting into.”
Paul will be a major factor on Saturday. He’s one of just three players in the nation who leads his team in points, rebounds, steals and assists (Jamaal Franklin of San Diego State and Tamir Jackson of Rice are the other two).
And Paul, along with fellow seniors D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, has that 0-for-3 chip on his shoulder that Groce is well aware of.
“I’ve heard them talking about it,” Groce said. “They are aware of it, but regardless of what their record is, that’s not changing. It has no effect on Saturday night’s game.
“It comes down to locking in, focusing on the game plan, and being mentally ready to deal with the cards we’re dealt on every possession.”
In other words, while most of the 22,000 will be caught up in the craziness that makes this such an anticipated rivalry game, Groce is planning to get past that in a hurry. Basketball — not the best madness this side of March — will decide whether or not he get to play Santa Claus.