Despite shoo-in status, Illini breathe sigh of relief
CHAMPAIGN – Sitting in a room by themselves Sunday night waiting to hear where they were headed to start the NCAA Tournament, Illinois' players could be forgiven if they were worried they might not hear their name called at all.
The Illini (22-12, 8-10 Big Ten) were considered a shoo-in, but they were just a year removed from a season when they missed the postseason and watched their coach lose his job.
They had to wait Sunday until the final region, the East, was filled out to learn that they're a No. 7 seed and will take on Colorado (21-11, 10-8 Pac 12), a 10 seed, Friday in Austin, Texas.
"I was sitting next to Tracy [Abrams] during the selection show, and he was just shaking the whole time – 'When are they gonna' call us? When are they gonna' call us?'" said center Sam McLaurin, a graduate student who transferred in this season from Coastal Carolina. He's one of the few members of the team who didn't live through the collapse last season that cost then-coach Bruce Weber his job.
It will be just the second trip for the seniors who dominate the Illini roster – starting guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, reserve forward Tyler Griffey and redshirt junior Joseph Bertrand.
The team started this season strong at 12-0 and has wins over No. 1 Gonzaga, Indiana when the Hoosiers were No. 1 and No. 10 Ohio State. But after last year's implosion and a 2-7 slump that pushed them to the bottom of the Big Ten dog pile. It looked like they might never make it to the tournament again.
Instead, they won five straight, starting with that win over Indiana.
"Our coaches wouldn't let us doubt ourselves," Paul said.
"There comes a point in time in every game, tournament games, that toughness is required at a high level," coach John Groce said.
Colorado was led by Spencer Dinwiddie's 15.6 points a game, but three other Buffalos – Askia Booker, Andre Roberson and Josh Scott – average at least 10 points a game.
"I think we had the least home games in the Pac-12, we played on the road," Booker said Sunday at a selection-Sunday party at Colorado coach Tad Boyle's home. "We played Kansas – that was a very physical game, taught us a big lesson. It's going to prepare us for this."
Kansas was No. 9 in the country when it beat Colorado 90-54 back in December.
Boyle said he didn't know much about Illinois beyond Paul and the big wins.
"Brandon Paul is a heck of a player, they come from a great league," Boyle said. "They beat Gonzaga early in the year."
Groce said that if his team can get hot, it could be dangerous.
"I do think that we have a team that has the capability of being explosive offensively with shot making because we've got several guys that can do that," he said. "That's always dangerous this time of year."