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The Fighting (And Winning) Illini!

It’s been more than 280 days since we’ve seen a snowfall in Chicago, perhaps because a torrential bad-luck weather system has been parked above Illini Nation the entire time.

The Illinois football team went 2-10 this year, and last year’s basketball tam was an abysmal 17-15.  After so much darkness, Fighting Illini fans have been in serious need of sunshine. Enter new basketball coach John Groce, he of the gleaming scalp and the glistening record, who has brightened the spirits of many an Illini supporter thus far in 2012.

So much so, in fact, that this morning, just 12 hours after Illinois beat Norfolk State to move to 11-0, and four days after toppling previously unbeaten Gonzaga to move to No. 10 in the national rankings—Illini supporters far and wide were poking their heads out of hiding like so many Punxsutawney Phils. Their forecast: brighter days ahead.

Out in Portland, Trail Blazers rookie and former Illini Meyers Leonard tweeted a photo of himself wearing orange-and-blue basketball shorts and sneakers. Down in Alabama, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that he is able to, again, wear his Illinois T-shirts to the gym with pride. And out in Naperville, another pal said the start to this hoops season has been, “Like a good book. You can’t wait to read the next chapter.”

Yes, after a frustration-filled football season, Illinois fans have indeed turned a page this month. And Groce—who is just two wins shy of matching Fletcher Lane’s 12-0 record from 1907-08 for the best start by a first-year coach in school history—has taken notice.

“I do think it certainly has created an excitement,” Groce told ESPN Chicago’s Scott Powers on Monday. “The biggest thing, I’m happy for, shoot, I’m happy for Illini Nation. I’m happy for the alums. I’m happy for the students on campus. I think they’re excited. I’m happy for all the people who support us. I’m glad people like watching our team.”

That they do, as the basketball team has served as a hallelujah chorus to the funeral dirge that was the football squad. When asked following the Gonzaga victory how they would describe the sizzling start to the hoops season, Illinois fans answered me with words such as “refreshing,” “exhilarating” and “energizing,” along with “heartening,” “cathartic,” and, quite simply, “fun.”

Echoing that sentiment, Groce added on Monday, “I do think for the most part our guys play with toughness and togetherness. We’re certainly not perfect, but they play hard and they play together. Our chemistry has been good. If I’m someone who just wants to watch basketball, I told our guys I would watch our team play. They embody a lot of those characteristics.”

Illinois fans, however, do need to bear in mind that the team’s roster also embodies many of the same names from last season. And that was a year in which the Illini also started off with a 10-0 record and were at 15-3 overall (including 4-1 in the Big Ten), before losing 12 of its final 15 games and ending the year with an ugly, tear-stained thud.

So, while Illinois fans should undoubtedly enjoy the spoils of victory, they also need to be mindful of their Kool-Aid consumption. Because another stiff test against 12th-ranked Missouri still looms on Dec. 22 in the annual Braggin’ Rights Game, followed by a full slate of battles in the rugged Big Ten, which currently boasts six of the top 19 teams in the country, including a whopping four in the Top 10.

That elite group, surprisingly enough, includes the Fighting Illini for the first time since 2006 and the team’s perfect start has served as the ideal remedy for a fan base that of late has become far more accustomed to licking its wounds than inflicting them on foes.

“A lot of people doubted us,” Illinois’ senior leader Brandon Paul said after the team’s win over Gonzaga. “We love that. We fought as a team. It’s a great win. Now we have to move on to the next one.”

And the next ones after that.

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