CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois basketball players know little about the McKendree team they’ll face in tonight’s exhibition opener at State Farm Center. The Illini know the Bearcats play man-to-man defense and utilize the pick and roll quite a bit, but not much else.
The most important thing they know is this: It’s a different team with unfamiliar personnel.
That’s a refreshing change for a group that has been playing pickup games and running drills together since June and participating in full-team practices for the last four weeks.
“A lot of guys haven’t played yet, haven’t played in a long time, like (Rayvonte Rice),” Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams said. “I’m excited to play with those guys and those guys are excited to play. Hopefully we go out and execute our game plan.”
The game plan will have very little, if anything, to do with what McKendree does and more to do with Illinois continuing to work out the kinks in its own system.
It’s no disrespect to the Bearcats, who are in the process of transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II. It’s the way John Groce has approached exhibition openers in what’s his sixth season as a head coach.
“We want to play our system to its truest form,” he said. “We’ll be playing different combinations of players. It’s certainly a very, very valuable teaching tool for us.”
The Nov. 3 exhibition finale against Northwood (Mich.) will be treated more like a real game.
“It’ll be a full-fledged scout just like a normal game to give the guys experience with that,” Groce said. “But at this stage of the game, we’re at such an embryonic stage with our team that I didn’t want to take up a ton of time with our opponent at this stage. I want it to be more about us.”
Entering Wednesday’s practice, Groce said there were only two players whom he considered to be rock solid in their positions at the top of the rotation: Nnanna Egwu and Jon Ekey.
Egwu was impressive in last week’s Orange and Blue Scrimmage, finishing with 17 points and six boards. Ekey has been the team’s most consistent player since practice began Sept. 27.
“Nnanna, in particular, has obviously stood out. Ekey as well,” Groce said. “Ekey’s the highest-graded player on our team right now. Those two guys are in pretty good shape. The perimeter is what’s up in the air tomorrow.”
Veterans Abrams, Rice and Joseph Bertrand are favorites to start on the perimeter, but Wednesday’s practice was being used to determine who would man those spots.
“We’ve got a dogfight at a couple of positions,” Groce said. “Practice matters, and for the first exhibition game I’ve always stayed true to that.”
After evaluating the film of last week’s scrimmage, Groce wasn’t pleased with the results. The coach didn’t feel like his team ran as hard or as fast as it needed to. Players weren’t in the right spots defensively, which led to too many easy looks.
“I didn’t like how we played in the scrimmage at all. I didn’t think we played nearly hard enough, I didn’t think we ran fast enough,” he said. “I thought our positioning was bad. I thought our screen defense was not very good. I thought we let the ball in the post at will. I think Egwu set the State Farm Center record for most post touches over a four- or five-minute span. It’s too easy, we let the ball in there too easy. We didn’t do a lot of things real well in the first one.”
There are a number of factors, Groce said, that allows a team to give up too many post touches.
“It’s part toughness and a desire to keep it out of there. Part of it is technique. Most of it, honestly, is a determination and a toughness to do what you’re supposed to do and do it consistently, and I didn’t think we had that last Thursday,” he said.
Since then, he said, practices have been much better.
“I feel like we got a whole lot better since Orange and Blue,” Abrams said. “Obviously, we’ve still got work to do. But I feel like we made a big step. We just have to keep making steps.”
“Now, let’s see if we can translate that into game night,” he said. “They’ve been good. I tell them a coach’s job is to define reality for them. The reality is we were not very good last Thursday. We’ve got to be a lot better.”
The last couple of years, the Illini were less than two weeks into practice before taking the floor for an exhibition game. With the new NCAA calendar, they’ve been practicing for close to four weeks.
“It’s definitely different from the first couple of years. It doesn’t feel like forever, though, it feels like it’s gone so fast,” Abrams said. “You’ve just got to take advantage of experiencing everything.”
Exhibition FYI (7 p.m. start)
P Name Yr. Ht.
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6
F Jon Ekey Gr. 6-7
F Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11
P Name Yr. Ht.
G Mike DiGregorio Jr. 6-1
G Clinton Happe Sr. 6-1
G A.J. Schmidt So. 6-1
F Brandon Drum Jr. 6-4
F Matt Murphy So. 6-8
Site: State Farm Center, Champaign (16,618).
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM