By Rodney S. Yap
Maui basketball fans were treated to the transformation of the Illinois basketball team this week at the EA SPORTS Maui Invitational.
The Fighting Illini left Maui late Wednesday night, hours after making a lasting impression on the tournament field and the rest of the nation that witnessed their memorable 78-61 rout of Butler in Wednesday’s championship title of the 29th edition of the Maui Invitational Basketball Tournament.
For a team that finished 9th in the Big Ten last year and wasn’t expected to do great things — like win its first six games of the season — there is a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day.
It is a holiday this Illinois team certainly deserve for the way they have successfully come together in a short time.
“What a privilege, our guys are humbled,” Groce said of his team’s experience on Maui. “We are privileged and honored to win such a prestigious tournament. I’m carrying the trophy with the guys up to the locker room and you see the names on that trophy and it really puts it in perspective. I’ve said this a number of times, this is the premier preseason tournament.
“I remember as a little kid watching the championship game on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving when I was younger, growing up in Danville, Indiana.”
Illinois, leading the nation in 3s, had five players sink 10 treys against Butler. The sharp shooting from the perimeter more than equalized the 27 points Butler got from senior point guard Rotnei Clarke.
“Very rarely do you have a new coach come in and the pieces fit this well,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said of Illionis and Groce. “It is so perfect, the way John likes to play, the way they spread the floor with four shooters, and the way they shoot the ball.
“They are a really good basketball team. They are playing with such great intensity and tenacity, and their skill level is so high.”
Tournament MVP Brandon Paul led Illinois with 20 points. He was joined on the all-tournament team by Clarke, Illinois’ D.J. Richardson, North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock, Marquette’s Vander Blue and Chaminade’s De’Andre Haskins.
Butler trailed by 15 points in the first half and by 13 early in the second before trimming the margin to 49-44. Illinois responded with a 10-0 run, featuring successive 3s by forward Tyler Griffey.
The Bulldogs never came closer than nine points after that. Illinois scored its last 13 points on free throws.
When asked about MVP Paul, Stevens did not hesitate, “Brandon Paul is a pro.”
“Not only does he shoot it the way he shoots it, but he creates distance on his drives. I had to ask a couple of times, ‘Is he traveling?’ I didn’t think he was but he has such a long stride. He was hard to keep in front and we had some good athletes guarding him and we still couldn’t keep him in front.
“I think he’s as good a pro prospect there was in this tournament. I think the real key to their team and the guy that has elevated them beyond what most people may have expected this early in the season is Tracy Abrams.”
Abrams finished with 17 points.
The Illini finished 10-of-25 from the arc and 20-of-21 (95 percent) on free throws.
“We’re going to be hurting right now for losing, it’s a hard thing to handle, but this experience has been unbelievable. I told Dave Odom already that when he wants us back we will be back. So it’s just a matter of when we get asked next. We can’t comeback until four years, but if they want us back, call me.”
Clarke was 6-of-13 on 3-pointers. However, no other Butler player scored more than eight. Freshman guard Kellen Dunham was 1-of-11 from the field and 0-of-9 from the arc.
“They did a really good job defending us, especially in the first half. I thought we made a few adjustments in the second half and they adjusted as well. We just couldn’t keep up with them. To be quite candid when you give up 39 points to Butler in a half something is wrong. We just could not keep up with their ball movement and we did not put enough pressure on the ball.”
The Illini has forced 79 turnovers through five games this season, an average of nearly 16 a game.
Groce plays an uptempo offense that shoot a lot of three pointers, but preaches defense first, and the Illinois’ defense was in Butler’s face all night long.
“The thing I was most proud of tonight was our toughness, because whenever you play Butler, they are just so tough mentally and physically, they never beat themselves.
“We’re excited, but we’re not done. Obviously it’s a tremendous start for our basketball team,but we can still get better. As long as those guys in the locker room believe that and they continue to give great effort. They have been very coachable and they want to be very good and they are fun to be around everyday. As long as we stay humble and don’t swallow the poison of success I think we will have a chance to play even better basketball.”
In other scores Wednesday, North Carolina beat Chaminade 112-70, Marquette defeated USC 72-64, and Texas toppled Mississippi State 69-55.