INDIANAPOLIS — The Illini are 2-for-2 in this year's Big Ten Tournament.
Just days after Lovie Smith was hired as Illinois' head football coach.
As Peter Venkman might have added were he posed with this scenario as recently as a week ago: "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!"
An unexpected two-game stretch of success isn't exactly pigs flying, but it certainly makes you raise your eyebrow and say, "Who are these Illini?"
In two games here in Indy, Illinois has appeared a new team. The Illini walloped Minnesota by 33 on Wednesday, the largest margin of victory ever in a Big Ten Tournament game. Thursday, the Illini took down fifth-seeded Iowa, pulling out the win despite a late Hawkeye run that erased an 11-point lead. Illinois has looked good on offense. Illinois has looked good on defense. And that means two wins and a season that has continued longer than many believed it could have.
"We wanted to play the right way offensively," head coach John Groce said. "And defensively we just wanted to play ridiculously hard and compete together. And I thought that our guys did a great job of that, and they really embraced those things for a second day. So we have an opportunity to live another day and move our name to the next line on the bracket."
But the question is, with Illinois looking like a new team, this: Is this in fact a squad with a totally different approach from the one that finished the regular season at 13-18 overall and just 5-13 in the Big Ten or is it the culmination of a challenging season and things finally coming together?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is a little bit of both.
Groce has talked a lot about "Season 3" over the past two days and the clean-slate approach that he wanted his team taking into the Big Ten Tournament following a disappointing regular season. But while athletes and coaches always want to focus on things one game at a time, it's impossible to completely block out the past, especially one like the Illini had, one that tested them through an inordinate amount of injuries as well as an inordinate amount of losing.
So Groce called it an evolution, this mix of a new attitude and applying the lessons of this campaign. Whatever you want to call it, it's worked.
"I think it's an evolution," Groce said. "Our team has really grown throughout the year. And they have been through a lot. And I think that's well documented. I think the one thing that we talked about was this being a fresh start.
"It's obvious that we're more connected with this current rendition our team that evolved throughout the season. Some of the things that evolved from were a little bit unforeseen or out of our control. So I think it's very important you play the cards that you're dealt to the best of your ability."
It didn't look like Illinois was making much progress as the regular season wore on. The Illini were routinely beat up by the conference's big boys, including Iowa, which delivered a double-digit defeat just last month. But with the way things have gone in two days in Indy, progress is suddenly noticeable. Jalen Coleman-Lands has been excellent, scoring 30 points in these two games. Maverick Morgan, once viewed as simply the only player with any kind of size to fill in for two injured starting big men, scored in double figures on Thursday after nine points on Wednesday and has been a strong contributor over the back stretch of the season. Kendrick Nunn has been hot-and-cold all year but went for 31 points in the wins over Minnesota and Iowa.
All that production even masked what was one of Malcolm Hill's worst games of the season. One of the Big Ten's best scorers and Illinois' best player, Hill scored just six points and turned the ball over five times Thursday. But he also hit the game-winning shot. The difference is that he's had help the last two games, something that was quite the rarity on the season as a whole.
The key? According to Groce, these guys fighting through the woeful regular season and taking their lumps along the way has finally culminated in the way they want to be playing.
"I feel like we have learned a lot, and it has brought us a lot closer," Coleman-Lands said. "With that being said, I feel like now we have a clean slate. We can actually put to use what we learned throughout the season. And everybody being 0-0, we have a clean slate to show people that."
"We have worked hard," Morgan said. "Even if we didn't get necessarily get the result we wanted as far as our record or how we did in league play, we didn't let that discourage us and didn't stop working hard. We did that every day regardless, and I think it's starting to show now, which is great."
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Will it be this new Illinois team for a third straight day on Friday? It's an even tougher test, against Purdue, but the Illini did beat the Boilermakers earlier this season. If Illinois can be the team that knocked down 26 3-pointers and forced 33 turnovers in two games, you'd think it could hang with any opponent.
The "what" has been astonishing, as Illinois has looked its best at the last possible moment this season. The "how" has been less obvious but perhaps even more important, as the Illini appear to have emerged from the cocoon of what still seems to be lost season, though even that's something that could change if the Illini keep advancing in Indy. They're not there yet, as their coach said Thursday, but they're in a much different place than they were.
"I think some guys are getting a little bit mentally tougher," Groce said. "So we haven't arrived by any means. We still have a long ways to go. But we have gotten a lot better in a lot of areas. And I'm happy — and sometimes the game doesn't honor that with a win, you know. Like, I thought we played our tails off the last 20 minutes (of the regular-season finale against Penn State) in State College, but we didn't win the game. But we played our tails off here the next 80, and the outcome went in our favor.
"So more than anything, I'm happy for those guys, because I think it gives them some validation for all of their efforts and their ability to persevere."