Illini Gunning for Championship in Maui

Illini Gunning for Championship in Maui

Illinois plays Butler Wednesday with the Maui Invitational championship at stake.

Illinois coach John Groce is readying for a familiar foe in tonight's Maui Invitational championship game.

The Illini face Butler (3-1) at 9:00 p.m. (CST) in a nationally televised game on ESPN.

Groce was on Thad Matta's staff at the school in 2001, following Matta to Xavier the following season. Current Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens began his coaching career at Butler following Matta's departure, serving as an assistant under Todd Lickliter -- Groce's high school coach.

The two remained close during their rise through the coaching ranks.

"We talk frequently and shoot ideas off one another," Groce said. "Maybe not quite as much this year until we get to this tournament, but once we get to the tournament, we'll do that. Our families know one another. Brad's got a great family. Brad's a great coach and a great person. He's done a tremendous job. As I had a chance to be on staff with them, it didn't take very long to figure out how bright Brad is. So I'm very proud of what he's accomplished and looking forward to the challenge of competing against his team."

To this point, Illinois (5-0) has dominated the competition in Hawaii. The Illini defeated Chaminade 84-61 Tuesday, a day after beating Southern Cal by 30.

"Obviously, we are excited to compete in such a prestigious tournament and championship game (Wednesday)," Groce said. "Our guys have earned that right with the way they've played and their effort and our execution, I think, continues to get better, which is going to make us a more complete team."

Butler won games against Marquette and North Carolina to reach the title game.

The Bulldogs are led in scoring by guard Rotnei Clarke (16.3 points), who drained a buzzer beater 3 to push past Marquette Monday.

Junior forward Khyle Marshall (13.8) and freshman guard Kellen Dunham (12.5) also average double figures.

"Butler's well-coached. They're tough," Groce said. "They're physical. They don't beat themselves. They execute well. They'll be challenged in a lot of areas, but I know our guys are looking forward to that opportunity."

Given the connections between Groce and Butler and what's at stake, tonight's game is a landmark matchup of sorts -- an early test for Groce in his first season.

"Yeah, it's a great opportunity for our guys," Groce said. "As I mentioned at the outset there, this is a great tournament. We've talked about it. The last several days I've made the comment I watched it when I was younger. Especially the championship game the night before Thanksgiving, the whole country is watching. For us to have an opportunity to play in such a prestigious tournament game, our guys are looking forward to the challenge."

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