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March 25, 2013

Illini seniors leave their mark




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Let's go back to early February. Illinois had lost six of its last seven and eight of its last eleven.

Almost everyone - including myself - pronounced the Illini season all but dead. The epic collapse of 2011-12 was too fresh in our minds. Some - not including myself - thought the program would be better off once those streaky, insecure seniors left the program.

But there were the senior-led Illini on Sunday night, trading blows with Miami, a team many experts had written in marker as an Elite Eight lock.

This Illini team, the same one that had lost 12 of 14 last season, earned the opportunity against the Hurricanes by fighting back from a 21-0 Colorado run to advance past the Buffaloes to the Round of 32.

This flawed Illini team was one minute away from upsetting No. 2 seed Miami, a team many considered had been robbed of a No. 1 seed.

THIS Illini team - the one with little interior scoring presence, few trusty ball handlers and too many streaky shooters - was a minute away from advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2005 squad made it to the national title game.

Leading the way was the embattled group of Illini seniors. Two months ago, their legacy was marred by letdowns. While their careers end with a Round of 32 loss, they leave the program and their new coach with two things the program had little of when the season ended last March: momentum and hope.

"They've left a great legacy," Illinois coach John Groce said slowly and softly, seemingly fighting back tears. "For us [the staff], we're in Year One. We're trying to build something special. I told them I'll be forever grateful in what they've helped us build in terms of Step One. Moving forward, they've given us some momentum for sure. We're thankful for that. There's no possible way I can repay them."


Seniors die hard

Groce reiterated all season that "seniors die hard." Well, that definitely was true of his inherited seniors the past two months, especially on Sunday.

There was senior Brandon Paul, the beloved yet maligned star, scoring 18 points, dunking on Miami's quality defenders and showing why NBA scouts will give him a close inspection before June's draft.

There was senior Tyler Griffey, the often self-doubting shooter, sinking his first four three-point attempts to give the Illini the X-factor they'd been waiting for the past four years.

There was fifth-year transfer Sam McLaurin bouncing back from three first-half turnovers to block Shane Larkin's layup attempt late for a much-needed defensive stop.

Then there was senior D.J. Richardson firing up three-point attempt after three-point attempt. He fired clank after clank (shooting 1-for-11 from the field and 1-for-10 from three), but he kept firing. Like his teammates, he kept trying. He kept fighting … until the end.

"I'll go down with him," Groce said of Richardson. "He's a great guy, great person, great captain, great leader. He represents the University at a high level. I've said all along it means something to him to put on his state's jersey. We want guys like that in our program."

One month ago, Paul, Griffey, Richardson and - to a lesser extent - McLaurin looked like they could've packed it in and moved on with their lives, making the UI staff's rebuilding job even tougher.

But after what Groce called a heavyweight bout with the Hurricanes, the first-year Illini coach thanked the fighting foursome for the formation of a foundation for his program.

"They've meant a lot on the court, but they've also meant a lot off the court," Groce said. "I like being around them. I enjoy spending time with them both on and off the court. They'll always be a part of the Illini family. They'll always be a part of my family."

All the outgoing Illini had flaws that will be remembered. McLaurin's defensive rebound percentage dipped by more than 10 percent in his one season in the Big Ten and was prone to too many turnovers in traffic. Griffey and Richardson suffered unbelievable shooting slumps.

Paul was one of the biggest Illini variables of recent memory. Seven turnovers one game, 35 points the next. His inconsistency was maddening.

But with the prodding and manipulation of Groce's staff, all should leave a mostly positive lasting legacy.

A newly confident (well most of the year, anyway) Griffey made two of the biggest shots of the year. His three-pointer with four seconds left against Gardner-Webb kept Illinois' resume clear of terribly bad losses, and his game-winning layup against No. 1 Indiana will be one of the most memorable shots in Illini history.

Richardson provided his own heroics, hitting the game-winning overtime three to beat Hawaii in the warmup to their Maui Invitational domination. He also finally took over as the team leader, calling the players-only meeting in late January that seemingly helped spark the five-game win streak (in which he averaged 15 points) which turned the season around.

McLaurin never impacted the box score as much as he had envisioned. But the immediate Illini captain did provide the intelligent, big-bodied post player Illinois sorely needed for its rotation.

Paul, who now likely embarks on a long money-making basketball career, provided some of the biggest moments of the past two seasons and had big-time performances in three of his last four games in an Illini jersey (25 points and game-winning buzzer beater vs. Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, hitting 7-of-8 free throws to clinch the opening-round NCAA win over Colorado and 18 points vs. Miami). He should go down as one of the better players to put on an Illinois uniform.


Lasting legacy

Sunday provided the seniors with their lasting image.

Miami was more talented, but Illinois controlled the tempo for most of the game.

Miami was bigger. Illinois out-rebounded the Hurricanes 38-35.

The big difference? Led by Rion Brown's 21 points, Miami's six seniors shot 15-for-39. Illinois' four seniors shot 13-for-39. That's the way the ball bounced Sunday.

But the seniors hope they helped roll the ball in the right direction for Illinois basketball.

"That's the reason I came to Illinois," Richardson said. "I wanted to come here and make my home state better," Richardson said.

Added Griffey: "Coach Groce talks about building that foundation for his staff and his program. I think we've done a very respectable job of that. He said we're always welcome back and how important is to lay that foundation down. I think the program's in good hands."

While the roster has several questions next season - Can sophomores Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu take the next step? Can transfer Rayvonte Rice thrive in the Big Ten? Can the top-25 recruiting class make an immediate impact? - Abrams said the seniors taught the returning players the toughness and work ethic needed to sustain success.

"It's a new beginning for us and this program," Abrams said.

A teary-eyed Groce thanked his seniors Sunday night following their loss to one of this season's NCAA heavyweights. The seniors should also thank Groce's staff for giving them the confidence and positivity to help re-write their college career script.

Together, they made the 2012-13 season memorable. Who would've thought that two months ago?

"Biggest thing, I said this to them, I hope this is a great life lesson for them," Groce said. "Don't put self-imposed limitations on yourself and believe in yourself. Then when times get tough, they're going to get tough. They're going to get tough when they're married someday, when they have kids someday and they've got to pay bills. All those life lessons you learn, that's what sports are all about: to be resilient and to grind and find a way. They did that all year. I'm proud of them for that."





Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU


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