Illinois is undefeated and has already won a major regular-season tournament, but the Fighting Illini are far from satisfied.
Ranked for the first time this season, the No. 22 Illini look to continue their early success Wednesday night when they host Georgia Tech as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Not much was expected from Illinois (7-0) after it lost 12 of its final 14 to finish 17-15 in 2011-12, missing the NCAA tournament for the third time in five seasons. That disappointing conclusion cost Bruce Weber his job, but with five of their top seven scorers back, the Illini are off to a strong start under former Ohio coach John Groce.
"We've got seniors that have been through a lot," Groce said last week. "They stay very poised and very even-keeled. ... That's a part of our culture."
Illinois, which started 10-0 last season, took advantage of some early tournament upsets en route to the Maui Invitational title last week, beating Southern California, Chaminade and Butler.
Averaging 18.7 points on the season, Brandon Paul was named tournament MVP in Maui, where Illinois averaged 85.3 points and shot 50.3 percent while avoiding Texas and North Carolina.
"Anyone who thinks that's a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with them," said Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose team lost 78-61 to the Illini in the final.
For as well as Illinois played in Maui, Groce and his players know they are far from perfect.
Prior to the tournament, the Illini needed overtime to win 78-77 at Hawaii on Nov. 16. After returning to the mainland, Tyler Griffey hit a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left to give Illinois a 63-62 home victory Sunday over Gardner-Webb. The Illini have failed to outrebound either of their last two opponents and shot 43.8 percent while committing 18 turnovers Sunday.
"We've taken two haymakers now," Groce said. "By no means have we arrived. We still have work to do."
The Illini again have a chance to prove their worth when they play as a ranked team for the first time since Jan. 22. This will be Illinois' first meeting with Georgia Tech since a 105-66 win Nov. 23, 2001.
Illinois is 6-7 all-time in the annual series between the ACC and Big Ten, but is trying for its fourth consecutive victory in the Challenge. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is trying to avoid a fifth straight loss in the event.
The Yellow Jackets (4-1) are coming off a 65-56 victory over Saint Mary's on Sunday in the third-place game of the DirecTV Classic in Anaheim. Brandon Reed scored 19 points as Georgia Tech bounced back from a 68-57 loss to California on Friday. The Yellow Jackets went 7 of 19 (36.8 percent) from 3-point range after going 11 of 67 (16.4 percent) in their first four contests.
"It will give us great confidence," said Reed, who was 4 of 6 from beyond the arc. "We need to hit it from the inside first and be ready to shoot and knock it down. This game will raise the confidence of the guards."
Georgia Tech's scoring leader is talented freshman swingman Marcus Georges-Hunt, who averages 11.4 points and 5.0 rebounds.
The Yellow Jackets have dropped eight in a row against non-conference Top 25 opponents since a 92-85 win over No. 12 Memphis on Nov. 21, 2006.
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