CHAMPAIGN - The Illini have made a lot of noise on the court recently. But the usually fun-to-follow bunch has had uncharacteristically silent fingers during the past two weeks.
Senior D.J. Richardson (@djrich32) hasn't posted on his Twitter account since Feb. 5. Fifth-year transfer Sam McLaurin (@B1G_Samb0), who colorfully announced his commitment to Illinois with the tweet "F--- it, I'm going to Illinois," hasn't updated his Twitter since Feb. 2. Even social media star Brandon Paul (@BP3) hasn't tweeted since Feb. 4.
Following six losses over seven games, John Groce censored the Illini on the popular 140-character-per-post social media outlet - they are still logging Facebook updates - in an effort to keep player focus on the locker-room message and off the rants and raves from Internet outsiders.
The ban even applies to walk-ons (Mike LaTulip hasn't tweeted from his @MLaTulip_5 since Feb. 5) and redshirting players (Rayvonte Rice last tweeted at his @rayrice24 account during the Feb. 3 Super Bowl).
"I think it's really important that if we're consistent in our approach that the guys on the team not after a big win re-tweet people that are telling them they're rock stars and then after a loss re-tweet people that think they're scum," Groce said. "The biggest reason is just staying on level ground."
The Illini (19-8, 6-7 Big Ten) have played inspired during the ban, reeling off four straight wins: upsetting No. 1 Indiana at home and No. 18 Minnesota on the road before smoking Purdue and Northwestern by a combined 41 points last week.
Obviously, cutting 140-character messages out of college kids' lives doesn't equate to wins, improved rebounding, stingier defense and fewer turnovers. But is it that outlandish to think that less of a presence on Twitter - an all-inclusive world in which even someone you don't know or follow can have a voice on your timeline - has helped an Illini roster that has struggled with the weight of pressure and expectations over the past few seasons?
"For some of us, yeah, I think so," said senior forward Tyler Griffey (@tylergriffey). "Maybe for me too. It's another thing that could potentially distract us. [Groce] wants to limit those, if at all possible."
Former Illini coach Bruce Weber banned Twitter for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons before forgetting to ban it last season. Maybe he should've shut it down. The Illini lost 12 of 14 to end last season, leading to his dismissal.
"People would like to think that (it helps)," Paul said. "I don't think Twitter has an effect on me at all. If I tweet something, it's not going to have an effect on the next jump shot I take. But at the same time, I guess it does give us a little more focus and not worry about Tweeting and things like that."
Quit the Twit
While many of the players still check their timelines and mentions - which Groce knows he can't prevent - the break from thumbing Tweets on their phones has been a breeze for some.
"Not too difficult for me," said senior Tyler Griffey (@tylergriffey). "I still follow my timeline and stuff. That's not too big of a deal."
For others, it's been a tad more difficult.
"It's not that hard but sometimes you want to go back because it's a fun thing to do," Paul said. "It's not a big deal. Twitter's still there. We can still think about it after the season."
As local and regional celebrities, the Illini have quite the following. Richardson has more than 8,200 followers. Almost 18,000 follow Paul. For players, Twitter provides an avenue to instantly interact with fans. But unlike the friend-request world of Facebook, Twitter provides an uncensored, unfiltered venue for furious, frustrated fans flexing Internet muscles.
"There's a lot of positives," Paul said. "There's always just one or two negatives every once in a while, people that are either frustrated or really don't know much. They want to go on social media and try to act tough. I always find that amusing."
Paul frequently re-tweets or interacts with his bashers - which appear to be many. On his last day of tweeting, Feb. 4, he sent out: "I've blocked tons of so called "illini fans" throughout this rough stretch..if any more of my followers want to join them, step forward".
But Groce would rather his players block out outside noise. He wants his players focused on the locker-room message, not the trends on Twitter or the rants on the message boards. In this constantly connected society, that's an incredibly cumbersome task for coaches.
Groce has a Twitter account (@JohnGroce) but rarely uses it. He has sent two updates since December, both on Jan. 20. His assistants usually are more active but have tweeted less frequently during the season.
"I just don't have the time, to be honest," Groce said.
Most coaches would rather Twitter not exist. While the application is an easy venue to publicize their program to coaches and recruits, too many problems can come from an 18- to 23-year-old operating an instant, public printing press at his fingers' whim. That's why many athletic programs and coaches have instituted social media policies.
Groce's staff monitors all the tweets his players publish.
"We monitor everything we do on there," Groce said. "That's the agreement from the very beginning if we allow them to do it.
For Illinois, it's not an issue of responsibility. Most of the players are kind, funny or just normal on Twitter. Even McLaurin's well-documented explicit commitment tweet was sort of endearing (committing to a Big Ten program is kind of an exciting event, no?).
The issue is focus. Last season, Illinois folded as the Twitter-verse exploded with rumors, innuendo and then reports speculating about Weber's job security. This season, they again teetered on the brink of collapse as they lost seven of their first nine conference games and fans fumed once again about a roster that once again appeared destined for disappointment.
Groce has attempted to silence that world. He wants his message - the one about getting better every day, the one harping on defense and not missed shots, the one telling them they were getting better even during losses to tough opponents - heard over all others.
The players seem to be listening now, their eyes focused on the prize and less on their timelines.
Has the Twitter ban saved the season? Probably not. Better defense, better communication, better ballhandling and better shot-making have turned the season around.
But if quieter fingers lead to better focus and louder results on the court, then silence truly is golden for Groce.
"I told them they should worry about going to class right now, practice and getting a little bit better every day, game-plan for the next opponent," Groce said. "Keep their lives simple: hoops, school."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU