No. 10 Illinois was 9-0 heading into last Saturday's matchup with then No. 10 Gonzaga, but due to some close calls against lesser opponents, such as Hawaii, Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina, the media generated little excitement about the undefeated Fighting Illini.
That sentiment changed following an 11-point road victory over Gonzaga. Now, it's nothing but high praise for the orange and blue.
Robbi Pickeral of ESPN.com writes that new Illinois head coach John Groce has impressed during his short time with the team.
After the Illini lost 12 of their last 14 games last season, it was hard to know what to expect in 2012-13. But under new coach Groce, they are Maui Invitational champions and ranked in the Top 25, and they staved off some close calls before beating Gonzaga on Saturday to move to 10-0. At least one factor in the turnaround: Groce's combination of positivity and accountability.
Groce came to Illinois from the Ohio Bobcats, who he took to the Sweet 16 last season. A critical factor in Groce's success is the emergence of senior guard Brandon Paul. Paul won the Most Valuable Player award at the Maui Invitiational and has performed well all season, but, as great players often do, played his best game when it mattered most -- on the road at Gonzaga. Against the Bulldogs, Paul scored 35 points and tallied four rebounds, three assists, two blocks and three steals.
Pickeral goes even further in his praise of Paul and Illinois, naming the Fighting Illini his team of the week:
Illinois' 85-74 win over the unbeaten, 10th-ranked Zags may go down as one of the most impressive nonconference wins of the season. Paul's performance will have plenty of shelf life as well ... If there is room on the bandwagon bus, I want a seat. I'm in.