Familiar Territory

Familiar Territory

The 10-0 start is nice and all -- but Illinois has been in this position before.

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois' impressive victory at Gonzaga Saturday pushed the Illini's ranking to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and increased the team's record to 10-0.

Those numbers speak to a successful season to this point. Led by a nucleus of upperclassmen, the team's winning ways have energized the program in it's first year under the direction of John Groce.

In the present, this is fun to watch. Down the road, this is exciting to project what could happen.

This is… exactly like last year.

The Illini started 10-0 under Bruce Weber last season, which included a win against a ranked Gonzaga squad.

The hot start led to a Top 25 ranking and a peak of hope from Illini Nation. You guys know what happened. The team finished 7-15, missing out on postseason play and Weber was relieved of his job.

With that blast of reality in mind, why is this year's beginning different? And how will the ending of the story be altered to include a strong finish?

Groce's method of addressing last season has been to not address last season.

"I certainly haven't talked to them about it to this juncture, and maybe it is in large part because I wasn't here last year and don't have relevance to that," he said. "They do, but we've tried the best we can to just try to focus on the 2012-13 season and leave kind of all that in the rearview mirror as something we can't control."

Groce is full throttle forward, asking only that his players get better one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time.

Still, guys like Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson remember what happened. The failures of last season can be avoided in conversation, but the memories remain. Richardson's message has been the same for weeks, since the Illini first appeared in the AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

"Been here, done that, especially for the upperclassmen," the senior guard said. "You know, we've been ranked before, every year we've been here. We've never been Top 10, but it all matters at the end of the year. That's what matters the most. Rankings don't mean anything. You know, we're trying to make it to the NCAA Tournament. That's our goal."

That's the kind of attitude Groce hoped his older guys would take on. He's noted in the past that seniors usually want to win more than underclassmen, who can sometimes be sublimely consumed with the starting lineup and scoring points ahead of what's ultimately best for the team.

To this point, Groce's seniors appear locked in on winning. Struggles in the past may be the reason why.

"I think we have more maturity this year in the sense we know we haven't done much," Paul said. "It's obviously a great start, but we still have a lot of things to finish up on.

"It's a good feeling to be up there (ranked and undefeated), but it's not something that we're going to focus too much on or worry about that too much and not come into the next game and play as well as we did last time out."

A quick scan of the teams from the Big Ten included in the Top 25 delivers humbling perspective. Five others from the conference (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan State) join the Illini on the list.

That means January and February will bring forth great challenges. The 10-0 start, the Maui Invitational title, the Top Ten ranking – none of that will mean anything if the team doesn't follow up with a strong push in the coming months.

Last year taught everybody that.

"This coaching staff has us so grounded," Griffey said. "We can't look past or start getting into the hype of anything. They're keeping us grounded and we're taking it one game at a time."

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