CHAMPAIGN — It’s amazing what happens — just ask senior Tyler Griffey or check Tracy Abrams’ body language — when confidence replaces doubt ... when success replaces failure.
OK, it’s early. Way too early to form conclusions. But four Illini attained double figures as they breezed, 89-64, Monday night, leaving the Terriers of St. Francis-Brooklyn wondering who was driving the truck that ran over them at the Assembly Hall.
“I thought the biggest thing was our mind-set,” UI coach John Groce said. “With this effort, camaraderie and willingness to learn, we have a chance to get better. We have improved each game we’ve played (beginning with two exhibitions).
“Confidence is something we’ve earned because of the hard work we put in. It is pretty high right now. But we haven’t been popped in the mouth yet. We’ll see. It’ll happen. When you’re winning, it is never as good as it seems, nor is it as bad when you’re losing. It told them that these wins don’t make us pop stars, and we won’t be scum when we lose. It is a delicate balance.
“We fly out of Chicago tomorrow for Hawaii, and we’ll know a lot more about this team when I next see you here.”
Mixing and matching
In his mix-and-match style of substitution, Groce found magic when he was forced to “go small” midway in the first half. Big Sam McLaurin drew two quick fouls and sat down. When Groce elected to rest Nnanna Egwu, that left Griffey as the tallest Illini on the court.
We were soon reminded that height is a measurement of size and not performance, the Illini rattling off 15 points before halftime to turn a 30-25 lead to 45-25. Egwu returned along the way, and the Illini kept rolling to a 72-37 lead before the typical game-ending sloppiness took over.
“I’ll take responsibility for our guys trying to eat clock rather than attack against their zone,” Groce said.
Statistics bore out the solid performance. The Illini had just four turnovers each half, the assist-to-turnover ratio coming off at an excellent 17-8.
They hit seven of their first 14 treys, and finished 11 for 25.
Seven players bagged treys after six members did so against Colgate. The night will come when the threes won’t fall — that happens to everybody — but Groce has a good-shooting squad and he encourages them to left fly.
Maybe that’s why you see players like Griffey and Abrams reshaping their basketball futures. When they miss, Groce leads the call for them to keep shooting.
The near misses earlier on prize prospects Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Demetrius Jackson were actually good signs, not disappointments. They demonstated that the Groce staff can go deep on highly desirable prospects, and the work paid off with Monday’s decision by 6-foot-9 New Jersey standout Austin Colbert.
The important information is that Colbert was in high demand, choosing Illinois over Villanova, Miami (Fla.) and Seton Hall.
With Colbert, the Illini will sign five players Wednesday at five positions. It is a quality group with excellent long-range potential. As freshmen, it’s unlikely any will start if currently ineligible Rayvonte Rice joins the probable quartet of Egwu, Myke Henry, Joseph Bertrand and Abrams.
But as we’re seeing, Groce will employ a rotation of eight or nine players. That means that Colbert, Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill and Chicago Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn will be the early-bird favorites for extended action. All are runners and extremely athletic, ideal fits in the Groce system.
Picking a lineup a year in advance is pure guesswork, and we have a full season to see how players progress. The Illini might need extra help at center and point, and newcomers Maverick Morgan and Jaylon Tate will be watched closely this season.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.