Groce continues March success

Illinois’ head coach John Groce reacts to a referee’s call during the first round game of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament against Indiana at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, on Thursday, Mar. 13, 2014 The Illini won 64-54.

By Johnathan Hettinger

INDIANAPOLIS — March has been good to John Groce.

“There’s nobody that loves March more than me,” he said. “It means a lot to be playing for something at this point in the year.”

His Illinois team is trying to play its way onto the bubble and could very well do so with a win against top-seeded Michigan on Friday.

The past two seasons at Illinois, he has been able to get the most out of his teams, with a near-upset of No. 2 seed Miami in last year’s NCAA tournament, and road upsets of Iowa and Michigan State this year.

But his success during the month has been a longtime staple of teams. In 2003-04, he made the Elite Eight as an assistant at Xavier before following Thad Matta to Ohio State. His Sweet 16 appearance in his final season at Ohio helped land the job at Illinois. He finished as national runner-up while serving as an assistant at Ohio State in 2006-07.

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His players said the feeling in March is definitely different.

“It’s an exciting time of year,” senior Jon Ekey said. “We still have those dreams alive, getting to the NCAA tournament. When you come to Illinois to play basketball, it’s one of those things you dream of.”

Groce’s success is because of his ability to turn around and prepare for the next game.

He told players they could only celebrate this win until they go to the hotel, then the plan, according to Tracy Abrams, was: “Film, film, film, rest, film and rest. Eat, sleep, hydrate.”

Egwu anchors Illini defense

On Monday, the Big Ten announced its conference awards, and, to Illinois head coach John Groce, there was one “shocking” snub: Nnanna Egwu on the All-Defensive team.

Egwu had anchored Illinois’ defense all season, averaging 2.1 blocks and 6.0 rebounds for one of the conference’s best defenses. In Illinois’ recent stretch of holding four straight opponents under 50 points, Egwu was crucial. In Groce’s collapse-heavy defense, everything was deferred to the big man.

“He covers up a multitude of sins,” Groce said.

On Thursday, Egwu was charged with defending Big Ten Freshman of the Year Noah Vonleh. Vonleh is projected as a top-10 pick in June’s NBA Draft, according to ESPN.

But Egwu limited Vonleh to six points on 3-for-9 shooting and five rebounds while forcing two turnovers. In two previous meetings, Egwu held Vonleh to four points but allowed 14 rebounds at Indiana on Jan. 26. On New Year’s Eve, Vonleh had 16 points, shooting 10-for-12 on free throws.

Egwu shied from taking credit, despite his five blocks changing the way Indiana drove to the basket and went to its elite big man.

“I got a lot of help from (Jon) Ekey and (Malcolm) Hill,” Egwu said. “Our main goal is to make him uncomfortable and not make it easy for him. I think we did a good job of that.”

The Missouri Valley in the Big Ten

For Ekey and Rayvonte Rice, Thursday’s win in Indianapolis was their first game at the Big Ten Tournament.

Both upperclassmen have spent their previous careers playing in the Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis, the weekend before the Big Ten Tournament.

Ekey said the extra week of Big Ten games adds a little bit more grind to the season and makes the Big Ten even tougher to play in. As far as the tournament goes, it’s different, too.

“It’s obviously a little bigger here,” Ekey said. “Fans are here for the first round games. The Missouri Valley did a great job with that tournament, but here it’s on another level.”

Neither player looked out of place Thursday. Rice, who transferred from Drake, was named all-Big Ten honorable mention on Monday, and his 13 points were the second-most on the Illini. Ekey, an Illinois State transfer, added six points on 2-for-4 shooting.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.