Brandon Paul has been here before. The Illinois senior guard knows exactly what 10-0 feels like.
After an emphatic 85-74 victory Saturday at Gonzaga, the No. 10 Illini have matched last season's start.
Illinois also started Big Ten play 4-1 last season, but then saw everything unravel. The Illini lost 12 of their final 14 games, a conclusion that led to coach Bruce Weber's firing after nine years.
Paul, who scored a season-high 35 points Saturday, is determined the similarities end there.
"We have to keep our foot on the gas pedal," said Paul, who's averaging a team-best 19.5 points and 3.8 assists and is second in rebounding at 4.4 a game. "We've been in this same position, nationally ranked. None of that matters."
Paul remembers a teary-eyed goodbye news conference for Weber, the coach who recruited him as a teenager in Gurnee, Ill., and helped him develop as a person off the court and an all-conference guard on it.
"Losing Coach Weber wasn't easy, we had a real close relationship," Paul said. "I've had a sour taste in my mouth for a long time now for how things ended."
While Illinois was out of the postseason last March without even an NIT invitation, mid-major Ohio was about to embark on a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament behind John Groce.
Meanwhile, Illinois athletics director Mike Thomas did not land Final Four-seasoned coaches Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth and Brad Stevens of Butler. But the day after Ohio's season ended with an NCAA tournament loss to No. 1 seed North Carolina in overtime, Groce had a message indicating Thomas' interest. "It became clear during the process that John was a terrific fit," Thomas said.
Groce, a raspy-voiced 41-year-old who grew up in nearby Danville, Ind., listening to Big Ten games on his grandmother's transistor radio brings a never-satisfied mentality.
"This is one of the top 10 basketball programs in the country," Groce said in a confident tone. "Are we there now? No, but we're going to get there. We want to find ways to get better every single day. Even if you're on the right track, if you just sit there, you'll get run over.
"This is a great academic institution with great basketball tradition. But we don't want to just get to a top 10 level, we want to stay there. We want to consistently be successful - contending for the Big Ten championship each season and making the NCAA tournament each season."
Groce isn't the only one with high confidence in the team and program.
"Honestly, I feel like we have a Final Four team," Paul said. "I don't want to be remembered at Illinois as the player who scored this or did that. I want to be remembered on the team that did something."
But Illinois might have difficulty finishing in the top four of the Big Ten this season with three teams ranked in the top 10 and five in the top 25. And while Illinois' guard play has been sound with D.J. Richardson (12.2 points a game) and Tracy Abrams (11.6 points) complementing Paul in the backcourt, the Illini still lack size after losing 7-footer Meyers Leonard to the NBA.
Groce's No. 1 priority when he arrived in Champaign, Ill., was to change the culture of the program by forming a sense of toughness and togetherness or what he likes to call, "T-n-T." "I wanted our players to have the mindset that every game, every practice, every loose ball matters. That's the biggest thing I've tried to instill," Groce said.
To motivate his players, Groce has every player wear a wristband that has "3-19-13" written on it to emphasize the starting date of the NCAA tournament. "I want our players reminded that's what we're fighting for and there are no days off to get there," he said.
So far, it's working. The Illinois players have responded to their new coach by winning in different ways. On the their way to winning the Maui Invitational, the Illini squeaked out a 78-77 overtime victory against Hawaii thanks to a Richardson three-point buzzer beater. They followed that with a 30-point win against Southern California and double-digit wins against Chaminade (Hawaii) and Butler. It's a stark contrast from a team that lost seven games by five points or less last season.
Illinois leads the nation with 10.8 three-pointers per game and made 11 of 26 against Gonzaga.
"They're playing rock-solid and finding ways to win," said Groce, who is off to the best start of any first-year Illini coach in the modern era. "We have some older guys, and I think that's helped tremendously because the young guys are following. We've shown resiliency. We got popped in the mouth twice at Hawaii and came back from 16 points down to win."
Groce said he estimates the team has had "three bad practices" since mid-October. He precisely calculates his team's effort level based on hustle, attitude and body language during each drill or shootaround so that when his team steps on the floor for a game, it is ready.
"I think guys have a lot more confidence this year, and we've all adapted quickly," Paul said. "Coach (Groce) makes us do everything with a purpose. He's got a lot of energy as a coach, and we all respond to that."
That is evident in their start. The key is the finish.