Football was a debacle today, but let's think about basketball now. The second season starts tomorrow night as Illinois comes to Mackey Arena for the Big Ten opener. I'll be in attendance int he alumni Paint Crew, but in advance of the opener Tom Fornelli of SB Nation's The Champaign Room answered my questions concerning the Fighting Illini:
T-Mill: I picked Illinois to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten and was obviously wrong. What has John Groce changed so dramtically with a similar roster to last year?
Tom: Well I don't know that you're wrong yet. There are still 18 Big Ten games to go and considering how that went for the Illini after a nice start to the season last year, I'm not ready to proclaim us back just yet. That being said, there is a noticeable difference between this team and last years.
As far as talent is concerned, this team probably isn't as good as last year. Losing Meyers Leonard really hurt because we don't have much offense from our front court. The difference is that Groce has taken the reins off this team. Instead of constantly having to hear Bruce Weber screaming in a hoarse voice about not doing something, Groce gives this team freedom. The guards all have a green light. Tyler Griffey has a green light.
It's just breeding an offense that is a lot more aggressive instead of timid like it seemed at times last season. And that aggressiveness leads to the players having fun, and let's remember that these are a bunch of college kids playing a game they love. They want to have fun.
T-Mill: Brandon Paul has been playing out of his mind of late. What has changed for him?
Tom: You know, I don't know that much has changed. While he's had some great games -- the Gonzaga opus in particular -- he's also had some bad nights. He's just Brandon Paul. He's incredibly talented, but he's prone to the bad night once in a while.
The only real difference I've noticed, and it's an important one, is that he's not taking nearly as many bad shots. Last season he would force things that just weren't there. While he has bouts of that this year, he's doing it a lot less.
T-Mill: Do you see Illinois leveling off or is their early season momentum going to continue?
Tom: A lot of Illinois fans are very optimistic right now, and it's easy to understand why. I'm not quite there yet. Don't get me wrong, the first 14 games have been a lot of fun. A lot more fun than they were the last few seasons, and it's been great. It was sorely needed after that football season. But even though we're winning, it's not like we're unbeatable.
We tend to play down to opponents, and while that may not be as large a factor in the Big Ten, the truth is that we're not nearly as good as we're ranked or our record indicates. My realistic goal in conference play this season is to go 9-9. That's it. That would put us at 22-10 at the end of the year with the Gonzaga win on our resume and hopefully a nice resume win or three in the conference. That would be enough to get into the tournament, and that's my only real goal for 2012.
Anything after that is just gravy.