CHAMPAIGN — As he left the court during a timeout at the Assembly Hall on Saturday, D.J. Richardson found a fist waiting for his.
It was John Groce’s. Coach and player pounded knuckles hard enough that it could have left a bruise.
Later in Illinois’ 79-47 exhibition win against Lewis, Nnanna Egwu missed a free throw. Groce applauded from the sideline. Egwu made the next one. Tracy Abrams clanked a layup. Groce made him laugh when he came to the bench.
“I love playing for these guys,” Richardson said after a recent practice.
When he arrived at Illinois in April, Groce found a bit of a project. But he wasn’t going to fix the program until he fixed the confidence of his players.
First, Groce had to change the color of their mood ring. The Great Collapse of last season left behind a locker room of broken spirits and fractured psyches. Ex-coach Bruce Weber said as much. The new coaching staff’s first mission was to restore their confidence.
Through the first half of the first exhibition game, it was apparent their confidence is on a different plane. The Illini made 6 of 9 three-point shots in building a 22-point lead. They had more assists (nine) than turnovers (seven). By not worrying about making a mistake, they didn’t make as many.
“This is not a game of perfect,” Groce said. “You’re going to make some mistakes.”
This positive approach might have benefited Richardson the most. His game cratered under the pressures of last season and has been rejuvenated so far in practice. Assistant coach Jamall Walker approached him before tipoff and said, “You’ve been playing well. Your confidence should be way up there.”
Richardson had a team-high 12 points.
“There’s no reason for us to hold back. We’ve got a point to prove this year,” Richardson said. “We’re coachable. We’ve just got to listen to everything Coach says to get better.”
All of the seniors — Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin — excelled in practice since a blah performance in Monday’s Orange and Blue Scrimmage.
“I thought Tyler practiced the last two days as good as he’s practiced since we started (Oct. 12),” Groce said.
Still, all of the man-hugging and fist-pounding in the Big Ten can’t cure the central weakness of these Illini. Groce’s system relies on a playmaking, established lead guard. Illinois doesn’t have that yet.
So unless one emerges — either through the current roster or the host of promising high school prospects who sat courtside — these Illini will need a dose of smoke and mirrors to achieve their stated goal of an NCAA tournament berth.
One example is using Paul more often as the lead guard.
“I think both guys (Paul and Abrams) made really good decisions tonight for the most part,” Groce said.
Another example is hiding their weakness on defense — containing quick ball handlers — by packing in their defense.
“This offense is more spaced for more (isolations), which I had a lot of this game in the post,” said sophomore Myke Henry, who stood out with 11 points and six rebounds.
The list of visitors included Michael Finke (2014, Centennial), D.J. Williams (2015, Chicago Simeon) and Charles Matthews (2015, Chicago St. Rita). Hyron Edwards (2015, East Chicago) visited campus earlier Saturday. Maverick Morgan (2013, Springboro, Ohio) and Jaylon Tate (2013, Simeon) were on official visits, while Malcolm Hill (2013, Belleville East) mingled with his future teammates.
The recruits, along with the estimated 8,000 in attendance, witnessed an animated first-year coach on the sideline. Whether it was his message of playing aggressive (“Way to attack, Brandon!”), his mood (if the vein on his forehead is throbbing, walk the other way) or his optimism (“Take that shot, D.J.!”), players know right where they stand. Everyone in the building does.
“I told these guys they’ve got to be everyday guys. We finish everything that we do,” Groce said. “Every game matters, every possession matters, every drill matters. If they’re going to give that type of effort for 40 minutes, then I’m going to coach for 40 minutes, until the buzzer. That’s just who we are and what we’re about and how we do it.”
Groce showed a clearly defined eight-man rotation for the first 30 minutes.
The first exhibition game wasn’t a sharp performance from the Illini. But they were better than in the scrimmage, and daily improvement is what the coach said he wanted to see.
“I think the biggest thing we learned tonight was how good they want to be,” Groce said. “Monday night I didn’t think we played particularly well. In almost everything we addressed through film, I can, in good faith, tell you we got better at.”