Illini prepared for challenge in NCAA's third round

AUSTIN, Texas — On Nov. 29, 2008, Jim Larranaga met John Groce.

Audio

The former George Mason head coach was two and a half years removed from leading George Mason on a miraculous run to the Final Four, and Groce was in his first year of running his own program at Ohio.

Larranaga’s Patriots defeated Groce’s Bobcats in the matchup, 74-65.

The two are no more than acquaintances, but both Groce and Larranaga started their head coaching success in mid-major schools, have a history of shocking heavily favored opponents in the tournament and recently moved on to bigger and better things at elite programs.

The two will meet again Sunday, except this time the stakes are a bit higher than a regular season game in November. Groce’s seven-seeded Illini and Larranaga’s two-seeded Miami team will play in the third round of the NCAA tournament in Austin with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

“I think anyone that’s in the business knows Coach Larranaga and his story,” Groce said. “I’ve always watched his teams. I’ve always admired his personality. You can see that he really cares for his players. I certainly have a lot of respect for him and what he's done at each and every program that he has been a part of.”

Groce and his players know they’re underdogs. Vegas has Miami listed as seven-point favorites after the Hurricanes dispatched 15-seeded Pacific, 78-49, on Friday. That was just hours before Illinois had to grind out a 57-49 win over 10-seeded Colorado after blowing a 16-point halftime lead.

But playing with their backs against the wall has been an Illini calling card this season. Preseason expectations for the Illini were low, as the team was coming off a season in which a 2-12 finish led to missing the postseason entirely and firing head coach Bruce Weber. Then it lost Meyers Leonard to the NBA lottery.

A Maui Tournament Championship, road win at Gonzaga and a Tyler Griffey game-winning layup against No. 1 Indiana later, and the Illini are practically experts at disproving their doubters.

“They have been in so many situations where their backs have been against the wall, and no one gave them a chance from the beginning, really, until now,” Groce said. “I can maybe assist them in not tweeting, but I can’t stop them from reading social media and watching TV in their hotel rooms. I mean, they know.”

Since Illinois knocked off Colorado on Friday, Groce has tirelessly studied Miami game film. He’s sticking to the promise he made to his wife to limit his coffee intake to two cups a night, despite an addiction that had him drinking two pots while studying opponents when he was in the NCAA tournament with Ohio.

So far, he’s realized the obvious. Miami is much bigger than Illinois. Miami’s frontline of 6-foot-11, 240-pound Kenny Kadji, 6-foot-10, 250-pound Julian Gamble and 6-foot-10, 290-pound Reggie Johnson cleared the way down low en route to ACC regular season and tournament titles. The three seniors combine for 18.9 rebounds per game; Illinois' top three rebounders combine for an average of 13.2 rebounds per contest.

“They have a lot of big, talented guys down there,” Illinois forward Tyler Griffey said. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before going through the Big Ten. We have gone against bigger and stronger guys all year, so we look forward to the challenge.”

Groce said the Illini have also seen a guard similar to Miami leading scorer Shane Larkin during Big Ten conference play. He compared the sophomore’s knack for scoring and making teammates better to Michigan point guard Trey Burke, who was this season’s Big Ten Player of the Year.

He said stopping Larkin and Hurricanes senior Durand Scott from scoring will be a heavy emphasis in the game plan, in addition to crashing the boards against Miami’s bigs down low.

Despite all the chatter surrounding Illinois’ chances on Sunday, Groce is just trying to stay positive. He's sticking to his mantra — survive and advance. There are no rearview mirrors. The Illini didn’t watch film of Colorado’s 21-0 run in the first 11:27 of the second half of Friday's game, and instead keyed in on how to stop Larranaga’s Miami squad.

“Obviously, Miami’s a great team, they have had a lot of success this year, and their guys have great leadership,” Illini senior Brandon Paul said. “But at the same time, we have been through a lot and I think our position in the Big Ten has put us in this position right now to continue to be successful. 

"We’re not intimidated by anyone.”

Ethan can be reached at asofsky1@dailyillini.com and @AsOfTheSky.