Tate: Illini take a step back on season's doorstep
CHAMPAIGN — John Groce’s Illini may be ready for Colgate here Friday, but Sunday’s final tuneup didn’t display a club sufficiently tuned to take on USC’s Trojans (Nov. 19) and other roughnecks down the road.
“We played in spurts,” the first-year coach said. “I thought our hearts were in the right place but our execution was inconsistent. This was not up to our standard. Too many fouls, too many turnovers. We were sloppy. We battled about 20 minutes out of 40.”
With a 79-47 rout of Lewis as background, the Illini exploded out of a 12-8 deficit Sunday with 19 straight points against West Chester, built a 27-point lead and struggled to finish a 75-66 exhibition win.
Groce noted that “basketball is not a game of perfect” — he’d settle for a 12-turnover average — but he was far from satisfied with the UI’s 12-assist, 21-error performance. If the Illini are to reach his goal of more assists than miscues, they’ll have to change their ways ... particularly Brandon Paul, who committed five turnovers.
But the Illini were never threatened at the Assembly Hall, and Groce cleared the bench with a 71-55 lead at 2:29, then unhappily returned the regulars at 1:19 with the score 71-61.
This final unit was led by Tracy Abrams, who scored 17 and has worked his way back into the lineup, and featured twin bigs Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin, who combined for 20 rebounds.
Roller coaster ride
“We have a good shooting team,” Groce said, “but when we’re not hitting, that’s when we need rebounding and defense. We played really well in the last 15 minutes of the first half, but we were not very sharp in the first four minutes of the second half, and it snowballed on us.”
After bagging 9 of 18 treys against Lewis, the Illini hit just 6 of 22 Sunday. They were safely ahead, 48-21, on Abrams’ putback when the gang from the Philadelphia suburbs began loosening up.
“Give them credit,” Groce said. “They won 10 straight late last season (Division II), and their guards are seniors. They battled back.”
Through it all, Groce continued to weigh his lineup options. He appears to have an eight-man rotation with a backcourt of Abrams, Paul, D.J. Richardson and Joseph Bertrand, and a front line of Egwu, McLaurin, Tyler Griffey and Myke Henry.
“We keep the pluses and minuses on all our lineups,” the coach said. “Some players, like Abrams, play just one position, and others alternate at positions. We’ll firm things up this week and we’ll have a pretty good handle on the rotation for Colgate.”
While Bertrand shows spurts of exceptional play (his 6-for-8 shooting was the best Sunday), Abrams and McLaurin seem to be making the steadiest improvement.
“Tracy really struggled the first week but he’s getting more comfortable,” Groce said. “He played hard and he picked up seven rebounds (and three steals).
“Sam has begun to find his niche in the last week to 10 days. He does the intangible things and he’s very consistent. He thinks team first.”
McLaurin has the strongest pivot moves for a club sorely lacking in post offense. His counterpart, Egwu, scored just seven points in the two exhibitions.
A positive note, indicating a greater emphasis on attacking the rim, is shown by 48 free throw attempts (made 33) in the two exhibitions. McLaurin, a 6-8 transfer from Coastal Carolina, shot 12 of them.
But neither Lewis nor West Chester presented the kind of size, nor the defensive prowess, that the Illini will face later on. This remains a work in progress.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.