Catching Their Breath
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Catching Their Breath

Illinois catches a break after a grueling stretch of the schedule.

CHAMPAIGN – Prior to Wednesday's win against Georgia Tech, Illinois coach John Groce spoke with Arizona head man Sean Miller.

The conversation consisted of x's and o's, according to Groce, in the way that back-and-forths between coaching buddies often go.

And then Miller pointed something out.

"He goes, ‘have you really played seven games? We've only played three,' " Groce recalled.

Miller's right – the Illini have played a lot of games. Entering the week, Illinois was the only team ranked in the Top 25 with seven games played and was the first to eight.

The packed-full stretch included five games in nine days and spanned to Hawaii and back for the Maui Invitational.

The bulk of the schedule was made before Groce even took the job. But when asked about the number of games played to this point, Groce did what he does – he chose a positive spin and jogged forward with it.

"The benefit of that is just how much we've learned about our team and things we need to work on, things that we've done well and different lineups that have played well together and different situations that we've been in and who's excelled," he said. "That's been a real benefit and allows us to attack practice."

Ah, yes practice. While on that subject, Groce usually brings up a certain phrase: players love games, coaches love practice.

The opening sequence of the season brought forth eight straight wins. But the crammed-tight nature of the slate didn't leave much wiggle room at practice, where much of the time had to be spent prepping for particular opponents instead of working toward improving broader aspects.

"I've got a list of things on a piece of paper that I'm dying to attack in practice but it's hard to have a legitimate full-contact, two-hour, getting after it practice because you're trying to keep guys mentally and physically fresh, so that you don't win the battle and lose wars," Groce said before the Georgia Tech game. "Certainly that's an aspect of it."

The Illini are currently in the middle of the second-longest break between games this season. The time off will allow for Groce to have a few of those full-steam-ahead practices and for the players to rest up and to properly hydrate.

Not that that's been an issue.

"The coaches do a great job of keeping our bodies fresh," said guard Brandon Paul. "We get into the cold tub and stretch after every practice. They make sure we get the proper amount of water and Gatorade and whatnot."

Paul logged 38 minutes against the Yellow Jackets. Most nights may be like that for the senior guard, who leads the team with 18.3 points per game. He and guard D.J. Richardson are each averaging over 31 minutes per.

But if that's what it takes, that's what it will be.

"You've got to have the same mindset every single time the ball is tipped," said senior Tyler Griffey, who the last two games averaged 28.5 minutes. "If you're travelling or jet-lagged… no excuses. You've just got to come to play every single time."