UI 79, Lewis 47: New & improved

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.”

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stumblefoot wrote on October 28, 2012 at 12:10 am

Paul,

Thanks for everything you've given to us Illini fans.  Your coverage has been spectacular, your honesty a breath of fresh air, and your insights provided incredible perspective each and every week.

Best of luck as you begin your new job in Denver and a new phase in your professional career.  For us Illini fans that live in Colorado, we're thrilled that you're coming home and we'll get to witness your coverage of the local pro teams.  But, we're sure going to miss your tremendous expertise and coverage of all things Illini basketball.

Best Wishes!

lmaran wrote on October 28, 2012 at 8:10 am

Pauil Klee, I want to thank you for your time as men's bball beat writer for the NG. You performed admirably well, and I could tell you are already off the starting block truly well with our new coaching staff. But Hey, things happen.

Wish you the best in Denver. I myself favor Boulder any given day. But you will do fine. 'Bye and much thanks again.

NaplesIllini71

 

 

oandb wrote on October 28, 2012 at 9:10 am

Congrats on getting away from Loren. You have done a stellar job and will be missed.

Please stop with the Weber references. He needs to be forgotten asap. 

Looks like we will see plenty of zone this season which we should have played for years. It also appears we will recruit by position instead of rankings. Both welcome changes IMO. I'm looking forward to hoops and hopefully the recruits see what's happening in Champaign. 

Moonpie wrote on October 28, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Yes, I second it--getting away from a Bush League writer like Saint Tate. But in Denver, perhaps be a little less smarmy and ditch all the prentious references to fly fishing.

penniless wrote on October 28, 2012 at 10:10 am

Tyler was my hero.Groce's style of play sure made Griffey a happy camper.All Tyler needs now is playing tme to hone his skills.He did not get the confidence or playing time with WeberIt just might come with Groce.

lasmith12 wrote on October 28, 2012 at 11:10 am

Paul, congratulations and good luck in your new adventure. I appreciated your work on IlliniHQ, and your behind the scenes work. I met and spoke with you a few years ago at a Career Fair for athletes, where we were giving career advice.


If you were going to have a chat this week, I'd ask about Mike Shaw. It looks like he has a high rebounds/minute stat, but it looks like he's stuck on the end of the bench. I though Coach Groce looks at the numbers.

jdstieg wrote on October 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Please.  Is there any possibility that you could take Moonpie with you?  Pretty Please.

optimator wrote on October 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm

agreed, send cowpie to the rockies

Parkie wrote on October 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Best of luck to you, Paul.  I enjoyed reading your articles.  Hope you continue to follow us flatlanders as you report on those teams in the mountains.