After a home loss to Wisconsin Feb. 3rd, Illinois was 14-8 and appeared to be NIT-bound. The Illini had lost three in a row, and six of seven. Early-season routs of Butler and Gonzaga were a distant memory.
Then, new Illini coach John Groce banned his players from twitter.
The dividends were immediate: Illinois rallied to beat No. 1 Indiana on Feb. 7 (because of the twitter ban, obviously!), then won at Minnesota, and then peeled off three more in a row to vault right back into the the NCAA tournament field.
Yet they respect the structure Groce provides, such as accepting Groce’s Feb. 6 decision to suspend players’ Twitter accounts. Groce believed his team’s concentration was being compromised 140 characters at a time.
“I believe in freedom of speech,” Groce explained. “But you get off to a 12-0 start and social-media wise, it’s like these guys are rock stars. Then you don’t play as well, they’re scum. I said, ‘Fellas, that’s the way of the world. The reality is you’re not rock stars. You’re not scum. You’re somewhere in-between.’ I wasn’t sure we were staying level with social-media stuff.”
The hot streak ended Sunday with a loss at Michigan, but the Illini (20-9, 7-8) are firmly in the NCAA tournament field (see Lisk’s pre-weekend mock), and barring losing the next four games (three regular season, first round Big Ten tourney), Groce will be dancing. Reminder: Groce had a couple impressive wins at Ohio in the NCAA tournament in recent years:
2010: No. 14 Ohio beats No. 3 Georgetown (which had Greg Monroe, great guards), 97-83
2012: No. 13 Ohio beats No. 4 Michigan (which had Trey Burke), 65-60, then nearly beat North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Dangerous 3-point shooters, pretty solid defense (62nd per Ken Pom), and a good coach. If I’m a 1-2 seed, I cringe a bit if I see Illinois on the 7-8-9-10 line.