CHAMPAIGN - When John Groce initially met with his new players shortly after taking the Illinois job last spring, the NCAA Tournament was the main topic of conversation.
After missing the Big Dance last season and two of the past three, that's where the members of the Fighting Illini wanted to be most, especially seniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and later transfer Sam McLaurin.
Through the summer and into the fall, as Groce and his players continued to get to know each other, the NCAA Tournament became a reoccurring talking point, so much so that bracelets were made with the date 3-19-13, when the tournament officially gets underway, for everybody in the program to wear.
"Those guys wanted to have an opportunity," Groce said. "Obviously you have no chance to advance in the tournament unless you're in the tournament."
The goal was met on Sunday night, when the Illini were announced as a 7-seed in the East Regional. They play Colorado Friday in Austin, Texas, with tip-off schedule for 3:40 p.m. CT.
"It's going to be an unbelievable experience, a time that I'll remember for the rest of my life," Griffey said. "Coach Groce always says this is the best tournament in the world and one thing better than playing in it is advancing."
So how did it happen? Heading into each season, every college team has the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. And every team, big or small, has a potential route to get there.
Groce entered fresh from a run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012 with Ohio University and was an assistant at Ohio State when the Buckeyes played in the national title game in 2007.
With his background lending credibility for both getting to and winning in the tournament, it didn't take long for his new Illini players to buy in. They wanted to be in the tournament. He had been there often. So, they were willing to listen.
Groce said the players viewed making the NCAA Tournament as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
"But I asked them to trust me and not to stare at that pot of gold, that we had to stare at each step and each goal that we faced," he said. "We had to man up and face each thing, adversity and success, that it was going to be a part of the journey and if we did that the right way and we played a 40 minute season or a 40 minute game that our chances of doing what they wanted to do would increase dramatically rather than just focusing strictly on that."
Groce's plan emphasized taking each small step of the way seriously. Each practice, every drill and and all the reps, was a chance to improve. And following each game, he avoided speaking about wins and losses, opting rather to talk about the way the team actually played. Sometimes the team looked bad in wins. Other times it looked good in losses.
The overall record didn't matter as much as how the team was truly performing.
"I think the guys really bought in to that," Groce said. "A lot of it is because we have good leadership, we have older guys and I've said all year I can't thank them enough for how open minded they've been with our staff and how willing they've been to listen, how coachable they've been and it is, it's their team."
And it certainly wasn't easy, nor did it always seem likely the Illini would accomplish their goal. After beginning Big Ten play 2-7, Illinois dropped from the Top 25. Particularly in losses to Northwestern and Purdue, the Illini looked like a vastly different team than the one that started 13-1 in non-conference play and won the Maui Invitational.
During the slump in January, Groce didn't change a thing. Practice remained the same. The way he addressed the team remained the same. Everything remained the same because Groce says he wasn't worried.
"Nah, because we have some competitive guys," he said. "I thought our guys did a great job for the majority of the year kind of carrying that chip. I mentioned that stretch of Big Ten play where we didn't play particularly well and they continued to stay the course and believe in themselves and believe in one another and believe in the system and believe that they could still get to this point where they had an opportunity to play in this type of game on Friday. I think speaks volumes about their character."
Staying the course proved effective. Illinois finished the season by winning seven of 11 games, with losses that Groce found points of encouragment at Michigan, at Iowa, at Ohio State and to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.
It was an impressive turnaround. It was an exciting time to watch Illinois basketball. It was what led to accomplishing the goal.
"It just shows the guys have a lot of character," Paul said. "We never doubted ourselves and the coaches wouldn't let us doubt ourselves. I think resilience is really big in us. We just stayed focused and we didn't let anybody take our minds off what our main goal was."
As Richardson put it, to end a career in the NCAA Tournament, win or lose, is "something to put your hat on." Paul said seeing the Illinois name in the bracket brought "satisfaction," to a career that saw last season end in disappointment, weathered the unknown of the end of the Bruce Weber Era and embraced the arrival of the upstart Groce.
"We could have pouted. We could have been mad about all the things that happened, but we just had to move on," Paul said. "As a basketball player you've got to have a short-term memory."
The way Groce summarized it, to help send out the seniors on the high note of achieving the ultimate goal is the very definition of his duties as coach.
"It's been fun because the thing for me is, the deal is not about me," he said. "Those guys that have been through a lot that are on this team, in particular the seniors, have an opportunity. They get to do something that they strive to do, that's not easy to do. Not everybody gets a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, to participate in it. It was important to those guys. I think the most gratification is the fact that our staff helped them get what they wanted, if that makes any sense. That part's pretty neat, when you can help others do something special, something that's a goal for them, something that's a dream for them. That's, to be honest with you, that's kind of why you're in the business."
The date 3-19-13 will soon be here, but everybody plans to keep the bracelets on. All along, it wasn't the date that mattered. It was the mindset that was produced from constantly seeing it, thinking about it.
"It will be here in a few days, and what we've got to do is more than just that," Richardson said.
Typical that one goal achieved opens up more goals to list. The Illini reached their goal of making the NCAA Tournament.
"Now it's up to us to make the most of it," Groce said.