Last week, the University of Illinois' "Illini Caravan" rolled into town, and fans really showed their support for all the coaches who attended the event.|
Two years ago when the caravan event was held here and neither head coach of the two major programs attended, fans let athletic director Mike Thomas know they didn't like it.
This year, the Illini gave it another try, and the fans supported the orange and blue at the Oakwood Country Club. The event actually went better than planned.
"The Quad Cities is great," Eva Schmidt, assistant director of special events and stewardship, said. "This is the best caravan we've traveled to so far. On a scale from 1-10 we have to give this area an 11. Everything here was first class, and the way the fans support us here was great."
The coaches who participated — men's basketball coach John Groce; women's basketball coach Matt Bollant; women's soccer coach Janet Rayfield; and Juice Williams, director of alumni and former player relations — all had great things to add about their jobs and programs.
However, Groce appeared to be the center of attention for the fans and media.
The first question asked of Groce was about his knowledge of the area and how close the Quad-Cities area is to Iowa City, with some saying it's really Hawkeye country. Groce knew the history behind it and heard about it quite frequently on the day.
"First of all, I know we have a lot of Illini fans here and support the turnout," said Groce. "The number of letters and emails I get from people in this area shows how much they really care about what's going on in Champaign. Especially in men's basketball, some are season ticket holders and drive down for games and don't miss them. Obviously sitting right on the border makes for some interesting rivalries in some of the households when we play Iowa."
When he took the job, Groce knew the passion for basketball at Illinois, and he's just as passionate about it. In his first two seasons, he led the Illini to the NCAA tournament in 2013 and the NIT this past season. Groce knows his teams play their best basketball at the end of the season.
"I really think if we had another win or two during the regular season we would have made the NCAA tournament this year," said Groce. "That didn't happen, and it left a hungry taste in the mouths of our players."
Given that Illinois didn't make the NCAA tournament this past season and how they struggled to score at times, it's easy to understand why some are skeptical about picking the Illini in the upper half of the Big Ten. Last year during media day, Groce talked about the hopes of that group succeeding. However, he knew that a lot of things had to fall in place for that to happen. Groce knows his current group could be special if it stays healthy.
"I think on paper (which doesn't get you anything, by the way), I think we have the deepest team and the most talented team competitively," said Groce. "We have depth at each position; we're going to be able to play more aggressively offensively and defensively like we did my last couple of years at Ohio for the first time really in the three years since I've been at Illinois. If the Lord blesses us with health and we're able to have everybody out there, we're going to have a lot of competition at each position next year. It's going to make players better individually, and our team much better."
The depth comes with sacrifice, and next season guys are going to taking on new roles with all the new players and those who are returning.
"We may have guys that played 30-35 minutes a night for two years now may be asked to play 28 next year," said Groce. "They're going to have to sacrifice minutes and shot attempts — we have a lot more weapons offensively. They're going to share the ball, which we know they will do. All great teams understand they have to sacrifice things to be good."
The "unwritten" rule in judging a coach at any level is said to be his or her third season. Groce is entering this third Champaign campaign and knows the expectations on his team. Last basketball season, the talent just wasn't there, although the effort was, as the Illini couldn't compete with the better teams.
With a loaded roster and that no longer being an issue, this off-season and dedication will be huge for Groce & Co.
Kedric Prince is a freelance columnist who writes about the University of Illinois for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.