UI men answer call (w/video)
CHAMPAIGN — In Illinois’ exhibition opener against McKendree on Oct. 24, John Groce decided not to call a timeout to calm his players as the visitors stormed to an 11-point lead early in the first half.
“I wanted to see if they could fight their way through it,” Groce said after that game.
Sunday’s exhibition finale against Northwood (Mich.) saw Groce change his approach. When what was once a 24-point lead for Illinois was cut to four early in the second half, the coach signaled to the officials for a timeout in an attempt to rein things in.
“I thought we were getting tentative. I didn’t like the look in our eyes at that point like what would we do that for? We don’t do that here,” Groce said Sunday.
After briefly surrendering the lead, the Illini stormed back to take control of the game en route to an 83-67 win against the Division II Timberwolves at State Farm Center.
“For a minute there, it looked like we had never gone against a team before that’s gone on a run. That happens all the time,” Groce said. “I just wanted to remind them that this is who we are. We’re fine here, show great poise, and let’s get some stops.”
For the new-look Illini, who will rely on five freshmen and two transfers in a season that begins with Friday’s opener against Alabama State at home, peaks and valleys likely will be the norm. The entirety of the season might play out in that fashion.
The 14-0 burst the Illini used to start the game swelled to a 24-point lead and evaporated with Northwood’s 29-4 run. How Groce’s club handles the good and the bad will go a long way in defining what type of season this one eventually will be.
“Obviously, we hit a little cold patch there, and I thought we stayed poised a majority of the time, despite them coming back from down 24 or whatever it was,” said guard Mike LaTulip, who scored 14 points. “That’s something that’s a positive about our team, the fact that we can show that we were poised throughout situations like those was positive.”
Sunday’s struggles can be looked at as a blessing in disguise for the Illini, who have learned in each of their exhibition games that it takes more than showing up to come out on the winning end, even against inferior competition.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I like going through a 29-4 deficit, drought during games.’ I don’t know if I like it that much, but can you find the positive in that? Can you turn lemons into lemonade? Yeah, sure. You play 35 games, you see everything,” Groce said.
From a coach’s perspective, Groce thinks he’s got a group of guys built to handle the adversity that will come from all angles at different times during the season. Part of it is just who they are as individuals, and another part of it was developed in the offseason with the demanding workouts and the Navy SEAL training. That was done to prepare for the hard times that are certain to come between now and March.
“We’ve got a group that’s really coachable and wants to be really good,” Groce said. “We’re just trying to figure out the how-to, executing that consistently every day.”
Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 16 points in 21 minutes. Freshman point guard Jaylon Tate, starting in place of an injured Tracy Abrams, added 11, while Joseph Bertrand (six rebounds) and Malcolm Hill (seven rebounds) each scored 10 points.
Abrams sits. Battling what Groce called a mild hamstring strain, Abrams watched Sunday’s game from the bench in street clothes. Tate and LaTulip handled the point-guard duties in his absence.
“I feel good (about it). He’s day to day,” Groce said. “He tried to fight me to go. That’s a pretty good sign. That was my decision, coach’s decision.”
LaTulip scored his 14 points in 14 minutes, including going 3 for 5 from behind the three-point line. The sophomore walk-on is splitting time between both guard positions.
“I’m feeling really comfortable right now, and really with that is my teammates. They help me out a lot, and I try to help them out, and it’s nice to go out there with the guys and know they have your back the entire game,” LaTulip said.
Rice starts on bench. Rice, the transfer from Drake, watched the first 11-plus minutes of Sunday’s game from the bench for what Groce termed a “coach’s decision.”
He checked in for the first time with 8:10 left in the first half.
“I just sat over there and cheered on my team. Whether I start or not, that’s not going to affect my game,” Rice said. “My job is to go out there and compete with my team, and I felt like that’s what we did (Sunday night).”
The 6-foot-4 guard sparked Illinois’ second-half run after it fell behind, connecting on back-to-back three-pointers that put his team back in control.
“I thought he really responded well. I thought it took him just a little bit of time to get in a groove in the first half,” Groce said. “In the second half, I thought he was back to his normal self and really played like he had been practicing.”
Hill continues to impress. After scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds in the exhibition opener against McKendree, freshman Hill put together another solid showing.
The 6-6 guard/forward scored his 10 points on three shots and added three assists.
At times, Hill played the 4, and on one possession he grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled the length of the floor to finish on the other end with a layup. His versatility is a welcome addition.
“I want him to be aggressive; he has a gift. He’s a really special kid and special player,” Groce said. “We want him to be aggressive. When he’s in attack mode, he’s at his best. I thought (Sunday night) he was really aggressive on the glass, especially in the second half. He had some big-time rebounds, knocked some free throws down.”
Hill is beginning to communicate more with his teammates on the floor.
“That shows me he knows more about what he’s doing at both ends of the floor,” Groce said. “I could hear him out there calling out different schemes and coverages we were trying to execute. He’s made a lot of progress, which is great.”
Here are three standouts from Illinois’ 83-67 exhibition win against Northwood (Mich.) on Sunday at State Farm Center:
Rayvonte Rice, Illinois. The Champaign native sat the first 11 minutes of the game but found his groove once he took the floor, registering team highs of 16 points and four assists in 21 minutes.
Jon Ekey, Illinois. The Illinois State transfer didn’t make much of a dent in the scoring department (four points), but he grabbed a team-high nine rebounds and tied Nnanna Egwu with three blocked shots.
Wes Wilcox, Northwood. The 27-year-old, 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward from west suburban Roselle performed like a grown man Sunday, scoring 25 points and pulling down 10 rebounds (four offensive) to lead the Timberwolves.