Auburn faces Illinois in Chicago Dec. 29; how are the Illini shaping up?

The Tigers play a marquee game against the Fighting Illini in late December.

If you follow college basketball as closely as we do, you might remember a few things from last season about Illinois. Perhaps you remember that the Illini upset the No. 5 team in the nation (Ohio State) in January and were poised to crash the big dance with their 15-3 record. Maybe you recall that Brandon Paul scored 43 points in that upset. Perhaps you forgot how they fared. They went on to lose 12 of their last 14 games. Illinois didn't even get invited to dance, and head coach Bruce Weber was fired at the end of the season.

Illinois pursued VCU's Shaka Smart and attempted to lure Brad Stephens away from Butler, but both attempts failed. Instead, they ended up with John Groce from Ohio University. "Ended up" isn't an accurate description, though. In spite of being the third choice, Groce came in with a stellar resume. When he left Ohio, the Bobcats were 85-56 overall. They had Mid-American Conference Tournament titles and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2010 and 2012. Playing the role of Cinderella in last year's tournament, they were a Sweet 16 team with wins over Michigan and South Florida before losing to North Carolina. It was the second time in school history, and the first since 1964, that they won multiple games in the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats concluded their season with a record-setting 29 wins and were ranked second in the nation in turnover percentage and third in steals percentage.

Groce likes to employ an uptempo offense that can prove exhausting to opponents and forces his own players to make smarter decisions faster. His players explained it in an IlliniHQ.com article.

"We've got a 24-second shot clock now. That puts it into perspective for you, what our offense is going to look like," sophomore Nnanna Egwu said. "It's fast-paced. Being able to get steals, get on fast breaks, quick outlets. And he's big on conditioning.

"Every player has to be conditioned, from the big men to the guards. We've all got to run and be able to run for 40 minutes a game."

Egwu said practicing under the 24-second clock (instead of the NCAA's 35-second clock) resulted in "some growing pains."

He joked, "There were at least 20 shot-clock violations a day" once the rule was implemented in April. "We're fine with it now," he said.

It will be interesting to see how Illinois has adapted to Groce's style. Are they are able to bring his relentless defensive energy to life, as well as maintain the breakneck scoring speed of his Bobcats? Illinois finished last season 17-15, averaging 65.6 points per game. The Illini shot 44.1 percent from the field, 30.4 percent from the arc and 71.5 percent from the foul line. They return four starters and five additional lettermen. Sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams, last season's MVP, will manage the battle plan. Senior guard Brandon Paul (6'4, 200) and DJ Richardson (6'3, 195) along with redshirt junior guard Joseph Bertrand (6'6, 195) will supply the points. Look for senior forward Tyler Griffey (6'9, 220) and sophomore center Nnanna Egwu (6'11, 235) to lend a hand, and don't be surprised if they call in graduate student forward Sam McLaurin (6'8, 220), a transfer from Coastal Carolina.

If the Illini can effectively adapt to Groce's system, the Tigers are in for a wild ride. The two teams meet on the Chicago Bulls' home court, the United Center, on Dec. 29 at 1:15 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on the BigTen Network.

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