Groce must rebuild Illinois basketball’s resilient culture, which will be tested by Michigan State

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

Remember “Toughness and Togetherness?”

Illinois head coach John Groce stressed that phrase with regularity and made it his official mantra in his first season in Champaign. His first two teams were built on those principles, and the “TNT” abbreviation was printed on wristbands and t-shirts. An Illini basketball YouTube mini-series even shared a name with the explosive chemical compound.

Groce introduces a new official mantra at the beginning of every season, but the TNT philosophy that had stuck with the program was unofficially laid to rest by fans after last season’s meltdown with the NCAA tournament on the line. That team seemingly abandoned any semblance of toughness and togetherness as the Illini crumbled to dust in their final three games.

Following his first Illinois team’s NCAA tournament loss to Miami, Groce delivered a moving locker room speech to his players, cementing the program’s identity as one that was tough and together. That speech was even featured in an Illini hoops commercial. But after how last season played out, it became impossible to associate Groce’s Illini with TNT until they earn it back. As if to concede what had been lost, the University’s in-house producers of the “TNT” videos changed the name of this season’s series to “Blue Collar, Orange Swag.”

The 2015-16 Illinois basketball team has shown varying degrees of resiliency while dealing with an unprecedented plague of injuries on its way to an 8-7 record and 0-2 mark in conference play. We’ve seen flashes of the fight that Groce works to instill in his players, as the out-manned Illini pushed a pair of current top-15 teams to the brink in nonconference play and ground out a handful of their victories in the final minutes. But we’ve also seen a team that’s susceptible to long droughts, playing down to the competition and looking lost on the floor in the second half, even at home.

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On Sunday against Ohio State, Illinois looked much better on the road than it had days earlier at home against Michigan. There was nonstop energy and a commitment to team defense that was reinforced even when the game threatened to get out of hand in the second half. The Illini lost 75-73, but the team at least passed the eye-test in terms of effort and overall performance.

Illinois faces No. 5 Michigan State Thursday in its second-straight road game, which normally would be a nightmare matchup for this season’s Illini. Fresh off a Final Four appearance, the Spartans are 14-1 and looking to compete for another Big Ten title under Tom Izzo.

But the Illini enter Thursday’s game catching a couple of breaks. Illinois point guard Khalid Lewis is scheduled to return after battling the mumps, while Michigan State’s do-it-all senior Denzel Valentine — who’s averaging 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game — is likely sitting out his fourth-straight game with a knee injury.

Valentine’s absence has left a gaping void in the Michigan State lineup, and the Spartans have struggled without him. They were rolled by Iowa and squeaked past a bad Minnesota team last week. However, the Spartan roster still has a lot of talent capable of giving the Illini major problems. Junior transfer Eron Harris was a star at West Virginia and has taken on a larger role with Valentine out. Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. is lightning-quick at point guard, and senior guard Bryn Forbes is shooting better than 47 percent from three this year.

Still, it’s in the paint where the Illini will likely struggle most against the Spartans, as they will indefinitely with injured forwards Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. out with injuries. Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling are experienced bigs and should dominate the boards, and five-star freshman Deytona Davis is putting up solid numbers (8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds) for an underclassman.

Illinois has fared better than any other team at Michigan State’s Breslin Center in the last 14 seasons, winning five times in its last 12 tries. Groce has been a part of that success, coming off wins in East Lansing in back-to-back seasons and barely losing his other matchup there in 2013. In all three of those games, the Illini played with the kind of toughness and togetherness that Groce so often preaches.

Illinois won’t contend for the Big Ten title this year, but that doesn’t mean the season is lost. This year’s Illini need to get back to doing what endeared them to fans during Groce’s first two seasons by being a gritty, grimy team that opponents knew could knock them off on any given night. At the very least, they should aspire to be a squad that opponents hate to face because they know they’ll be getting a battle. That hasn’t been the case this season.

We know this team is capable of playing tough and together for 40 minutes — they did it against Ohio State Sunday. We don’t know if they’re capable of sustaining it.

The talent won’t be fully there until the Illini get healthy, and we don’t even know if that will happen this season. But if Groce can get his guys to recapture that resilient identity, he’ll be able to salvage some meaning out of this season and quiet calls for him to lose his job. If Thorne and Black are available down the stretch, it’s possible they can rejoin a team whose identity is well-established but had just been lacking interior talent.

In the scope of the rest of the season, a good showing Thursday can help shape an identity that Groce has been trying to restore to for nearly a full year. In the shorter-term, that same showing will give the Illini a chance to beat the Spartans, especially without Valentine.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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