- Associated Press - Friday, November 30, 2012

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - Last weekend, Illinois’ surprising unbeaten start was 4.4 seconds away from running head-on into a wall.

Gardner-Webb, an opponent any Big Ten school is expected to beat at home, was up by two with the clock winding down on the strength of a banked-in 3-pointer, the kind of good-grief shot that tells the opponent it just might not be their night.

A season ago, Illinois probably would have cracked under that pressure. That team _ essentially the same group of players _ lost 12 of its last 14, missed the NCAA tournament and saw its coach fired.

Not this time.

Senior forward Tyler Griffey, just a minute or so removed from a bad miss that could have drained his confidence, buried a long 3 for the win.

The Illini (8-0) woke up the next day ranked 22nd in the country. So far they’ve won the Maui Invitational title, blowing out Butler in the championship, and are averaging 11 3-pointers a game. That’s more than any team in the country, and this start is more than anyone expected after the big collapse.

What turned last year’s fragile team into this tough, hot-shooting bunch? Some point to the energetic, relentlessly upbeat new coach, John Groce.

“He’s a really, really positive guy, and I think his team feeds off of it,” said Gardner-Webb coach Chris Holtmann, who was a member of Groce’s staff at Ohio and both played in the early 1990s at tiny Taylor University in Indiana. “His kids are going to play with great confidence, they’re going to play really loose and aggressive, they’re going to be in attack mode.”

Griffey, a 6-8 forward who has struggled the past three seasons to win and keep a place in the team, agrees.

“Positive encouragement goes a really long way,” he said. “He is very big on that.”

Teammate Brandon Paul, another senior and a big reason Illinois is hitting all those 3-pointers, says last season’s long, slow demolition is playing a role, too.

“We’ve been through a lot here. We have toughness in us and that allows us to finish games,” said Paul, who is averaging a team-leading 18.3 points per game and has hit 22 of his 53 3-pointers.

A 15-3 start last season included wins over two ranked teams, Gonzaga and Ohio State. But Illinois then had a head-scratching loss to Penn State, a defeat that started something rolling downhill that neither the players nor coach Bruce Weber could stop. Weber lost his job and Groce _ after at least two higher-profile coaches said no _ was hired.

Groce has gone to great lengths to say he won’t judge these players by that collapse. But he believes that what they went through is a source of strength.

“They’ve seen so much, these guys,” he said.

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