CHAMPAIGN — John Groce has dreamed of coaching a team that averages 80 points with five players in double figures ... that limited opponents to 40 percent shooting ... that produced more assists than turnovers.
Actually, Groce’s Illini aren’t far off those numbers in a 9-0 start.
They are among national leaders from the arc, have one more assist than turnovers, are limiting foes to 40 percent from the field and have four starters in double figures.
But the Illini, who survived scares with last-ditch threes to beat so-so Hawaii and Gardner-Webb teams, nearly slipped up against Western Carolina at home Tuesday night.
Between erratic shooting — numerous missed layups, several of which were tipped in — and being outrebounded 41-34, the Illini broke out of a 54-54 tie to outscore the Catamounts 18-10 in the last 5:30.
After being relatively quiet earlier, guards D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams combined for the last 16 of those 18 points ... 16 of the 23 they accumulated in the game.
There’s no rush
So, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If it’s exhilarating to be in the Top 25, we must understand that it can be fleeting.
Gonzaga is waiting in Spokane, Missouri is anxious to extend its Braggin’ Rights streak, and Auburn is bringing SEC basketball to the United Center.
And then there’s the toughest lineup of Big Ten rivals since the 1980s.
The Illini, we must remind ourselves, opened 10-0 last year with victims that included Illinois State 63-59, Maryland 71-62, Gonzaga 82-75
and St. Bonaventure 48-43. Then came the long slide that began with losses to UNLV (64-48) in Chicago and to Missouri (78-74) in St. Louis.
Groce called Tuesday’s performance “disappointing,” joking that his activity on the sideline caused him to rip his pants.
“I apologize,” he smiled. “Next time I’ll wear dark underwear.”
Key in the clutch
On the positive side, the Illini again played strong when the chips were down. Abrams was coming off two poor performances and was 1 for 8 with one assist in the first half. But he chilled the hopeful visitors with his driving, hustling style at the end.
“We made some plays in the stretch. Tracy got to the rim. And we dug out some steals,” Groce said.
Illinois dominated points off turnovers, 29-4, and led in second-chance points, 22-14. Thanks to the frequent breakaways, they never gave up the lead although it was tied at 40-40 and 54-54.
But there is concern. This was a foe that has already lost six games ... is bouncing through a stretch of seven straight road games ... and had to overcome an early 17-7 deficit here.
“We have to execute better,” Groce said, “and we were terrible on the backboards. We gave up 18 offensive rebounds.
“They drove us and we made too many fouls (16). Giving up 42 points in the second half is unacceptable. We weren’t active, and we weren’t tough enough. That’s my responsibility.”
So it’s an eight-point win that won’t carry weight one way or another in the long run. All eyes are on Gonzaga. A win in Spokane and Tuesday will be forgotten.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.