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March 2, 2013
CHAMPAIGN - Take in everything that happened on Saturday at the Assembly Hall.
The 72-65 Illinois win over Nebraska (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten) was more dramatic than the Illini would've hoped. But the scene of the Assembly Hall's 50th birthday party perfectly portrayed the progression of Illinois basketball program during the past five months.
The victory all but ensures the Illini (21-9, 8-8 Big Ten) - with their impressive resume - of an NCAA Tournament berth just one year after they couldn't crack the fields of the NIT or CBI postseason tournaments.
A month ago, many thought the Illini, at 2-7 in the Big Ten, would suffer a similar fate to last season.
"I think [Illinois coach John] Groce has done an outstanding job," first-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "They kind of reinvented themselves. They were rolling, doing great and then had a tough stretch. Some coaches would lose that. He's done a fabulous job of getting them back and finding a way to win games. Tonight was another one. We had a real chance to win the game, and they fought back and found ways to win. That's a credit to their coach, their coaching staff and their players."
A senior class with a cloudy legacy left their last collegiate home game to an ovation. Brandon Paul, a player beloved for his unbelievable highs but bemoaned for his sometimes excruciating struggles, crouched at midcourt and pulled his white No. 3 jersey over his head to hide a stream of tears.
"It means the world to me, the rest of the seniors, as well as the rest of the team," Paul said. "It's obviously good to go out with a win. It was an emotional night for us."
Meanwhile, the future sat behind the north basket.
Champaign Centennial junior Michael Finke made the usual short trip to watch some of his future teammates. But he was joined on Saturday by Simeon senior teammates Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, who hope to keep the positive vibes flowing when they arrive to campus next year.
To try and help the long-term future, they flanked Chicago Curie junior Cliff Alexander. The 6-foot-9 power forward is Finke's height and age, but his mature face, broad shoulders and filled-out frame make him look 10 years older.
Illinois recently hasn't been able to attract prospects of Alexander's caliber - Rivals rates Alexander the fourth-best junior prospect in the country - this late in the recruiting process. The five-star recruit made it sound like Groce's staff has put them in the race with Michigan State, Kentucky, Indiana, Florida, Baylor, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin.
Asked if Illinois was definitely in the running for him, Alexander said, "Oh yeah, I love Illinois. It means a lot to me. It stands out. Coach Groce is a great guy. I love him."
Groce and his assistants aren't the only ones giving Alexander a sales pitch.
"Just trying to get in his head," Tate said. "It's a good program. He'd fit the system well. He'll have some good guys around him that will take care of him.
"We're trying to build the foundation back up, having top Chicago players play down at Illinois."
If their pitch was successful and Illinois landed Alexander?
"Man, that'd be something big," Nunn said. "Hopefully he gets down and start getting wins and a Final Four."
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Illinois has to land big fish(es) like Alexander to achieve those dreams. But the thought doesn't sound as crazy as it would have a year ago, or a month ago. This season, and the six wins over the last seven games especially, has changed the Illinois landscape for the foreseeable future.
There still is a painstaking uphill climb for the once-fearsome program to reach the levels of the Big Ten beasts. This current squad isn't a Big Ten title contender and likely won't be a Final Four team. Next year's team likely won't be a Big Ten or Final Four threat either given the Illini lose Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin to graduation.
Yet, these seniors will have a more positive lasting legacy, leaving the program with some momentum coming off an NCAA bid. Fans will have pride again, leading to more raucous sell outs. Recruits, like Alexander or fellow 2014 five-star Jaquan Lyle, will continue to have Groce and the Illini on their radar.
That pleasant picture shined on Saturday.
How did Groce - clad in his radiant orange blazer on Saturday -brighten the once gloomy Illini landscape so quickly? We're left to ponder.
"Whatever he's done, he's done a really good job," Tate said. "It's only going to get better in the future."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU
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