His time has come

Even during Illinois' tough stretch, John Groce instilled confidence in his players. Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. -- When Illinois hired John Groce as head coach, there was skepticism.

When the Illini won 12 in a row to start the season, beating Butler to win the Maui Invitational and taking a road game at Gonzaga, there was disbelief.

When Illinois endured a 2-7 stretch to start Big Ten play, there was that familiar skepticism again. Maybe some good old-fashioned Midwestern basketball nihilism, too.

Now, after righting things with four wins in a row and with an NCAA tournament bid almost locked up, there is, it seems, contentment in University of Illinois basketball circles.

The Illini faithful who packed Welsh-Ryan Arena during Illinois' 62-41 victory over Northwestern on Sunday made their feelings known. The Illini owned the Big Ten's Chicago high school gym.

For Groce, that raspy-voiced gesticulating GIF machine on the sidelines, success isn't about the emotion he shows or the good vibes of the alumni. It's simple arithmetic, and we're not talking about the final score.

"I was a math teacher, believe it or not," he said Sunday night. "I used to teach geometry. When students were trying to solve proofs, they couldn't solve them until they knew the theorems. For us, our guys are starting to know some of the theorems instinctively now. So they're able to solve some things instinctively. It's went from becoming just knowledge to habits. I think that's a big difference. I think that natural maturation process is starting to happen for them."

And you thought the Northwestern coach would be the one talking fancy book learnin'.

This kind of late-season improvement gives credence to Groce's reputation from his days at Ohio University, where his teams got better and jelled late in the season. That's why critics who brought up his conference record at Ohio, 34-30 in four seasons, didn't get why he was so successful in March, when college basketball actually matters. It wasn't luck and long 3-pointers.

Well, luck and long 3s certainly helped his teams win three tournament games in two trips. But there was truly a method to Ohio's March Madness.

That's why Illinois (19-8, 6-7 in the Big Ten) might be able to make some noise in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago on March 14-17, and more importantly, in the ensuing NCAA tournament. This team doesn't have size, and it will need some hot shooting, but a pressure defense and good guard play can make a coach rich. Just ask Groce.

The Illini certainly made up for their earlier 68-54 loss to Northwestern. They went on a 26-0 run that saw Illinois' lead go from 19-15 with 2:55 left in the first half to 45-15, until Northwestern's James Montgomery scored a layup off a steal with 13:26 left to break the drought.

A short-handed Northwestern shot 25 percent and had more turnovers, 14, than made field goals, 12.

When the Illinois fans were chanting "Put in Wilbon," for ESPNChicago's own Michael Wilbon, who was at the game getting his 200th honorary jersey, some Northwestern fans were probably wondering if he could create his own shot off the dribble.

Give Illinois credit for defending the few remaining varsity players that injury-riddled Northwestern has left and winning with style points.

"We're winning by playing like we played at the beginning of the year," said senior guard D.J. Richardson, who led the team with 18 points and 8 rebounds. "Just jumping to the ball and play how we're supposed to play. Nothing special, just playing defense the way we're supposed to play. We'll be a pretty good team if we keep playing like that."

During the team's funk, which included losses to some very good teams in a loaded conference -- two to Wisconsin, and one apiece to Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota -- Groce challenged the players but didn't get negative. To college kids, especially ones who went through a rough season prior, that means more than you think.

"The coaches never gave up on us," senior guard Brandon Paul said. "They want to see us succeed. They said, we've had this rough stretch but gotta fight through it. No one on the team gave up on each other."

After dominating Ohio State on Jan. 12, making up for a conference-opening loss at Purdue, Illinois lost six of seven from Jan. 9 through Feb. 3. What was Groce's message?

"Don't give in," Paul said. "Don't let what outsiders say affect us. I think that's definitely been in our minds. A lot of people doubted us when we went through that rough stretch. He's a guy with unbelievable energy. He comes in every day and he gives us the passion to want to compete and get better every day. That's something you need in a coach."

Illinois responded to Groce's patient energy with wins over No. 1 Indiana and No. 18 Minnesota and then wins over Purdue and Northwestern. Of the final five regular season games, Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa should be wins (road games at Ohio State and Michigan are more challenging) and Illinois is easily into the NCAA tournament.

Last year, the Illini started 4-1 in conference play before going into a 2-11 tailspin. A 3-point loss in the Big Ten tournament was Bruce Weber's swan song.

It's long since time to give up the ghosts of failures of Illinois teams past.

"It's a whole different staff, whole different team, whole different attitude," Richardson said. "Everything's different. This team is no comparison to last year."

Not quite. It is basically the same team, just with different coaches and no NBA center in Meyers Leonard. But change was good for Illinois.

What happens next year as Groce's recruits come in and four talented seniors leave is anybody's guess. But no one is doubting that Illinois got the right guy anymore.

And unlike Northwestern, which is spinning its wheels in another lost season, Illinois could actually be Chicago's Big Ten team once again.