Insider Notes...

Insider notes following Illinois' Monday team scrimmage.

CHAMPAIGN – Nnanna Egwu's name has often been thrown about for his offseason improvements.

His performance in Monday night's scrimmage was the first reward for all the work he's put in.

The sophomore scored 14 points and pulled down six rebounds and appears to be on track to start and play the role of main low-post contributor this season.

"He's been shooting real well," coach John Groce said. "He's earned the right. He made 23,000 shots this summer. He's a guy who shot the most shots. He comes in, probably watches more film than anybody else. He gets extra shots up on his own. He wants to be really good, so he works at it."

Egwu was impressive running the floor, seeking shots from outside the paint and seamlessly transitioned between the 4 and 5 positions in the paint.

"Oh yeah, definitely, (playing) inside-outside, you know it just helps the offense flow better," Egwu said.

"There's sometimes in the game I'll be in the four spot, (others will) be in the five spot. It doesn't really matter – we're just setting screens and moving."

- A few eyebrows were raised when Groce revealed his current starting lineup, without Tracy Abrams, over the weekend. Without the sophomore who started 19 games a year ago, Groce placed Brandon Paul at the point, joined by Joe Bertrand, D.J. Richardson, Myke Henry and Egwu. That group started Monday night together on the Orange squad. Nothing is set in stone, but those are the players that have graded out highest in practice since October 12, Groce said.

"It's nothing personal. I like all of them, but those are the guys that have been able to execute what we've asked them to do whether that's more assists than turnovers, transition d, you know, post d, jumping to the ball, all those things together, in addition to what you guys see from the production standpoint in the box score because there's more to it than that," Groce said.

Groce said decisions on starters for Saturday's exhibition game will not be made until the conclusion of Friday's practice.

So why is Paul starting at the one in place of Abrams, who was named Team MVP as a freshman a season ago… The answer is simple.

"I like the fact he's got more assists than turns," Groce said. "Currently he's the only guy that's done that though practice starting on October 12 leading into tonight's Orange and Blue (scrimmage)."

Paul finished the scrimmage with nine points on 4-of-13 shooting. He had four assists and four turnovers. Abrams, meanwhile, chipped in five points and also posted four assists and four turnovers.

"Obviously I'm not a rocket scientist but I know at that position you'd like to have a guy with more assists than turnovers," Groce said. "Tracy and Mike (LaTulip) have made a little bit of a comeback in that area. Early on they both turned it over quite a bit in first four-day cycle of practice. They did a little bit better – decision making tonight I thought was OK."

- Paul will almost certainly be a starter, either at the 1 or elsewhere on the perimeter. The prime beneficiary of Abrams demotion is Myke Henry, who is currently a starter at forward.

The sophomore managed seven points Monday, but scoring is not what's going to keep him in the starting lineup this season.

"He's rebounded it at a high level," Groce said. "He's our leading rebounder in all live action in practice. I think if you quizzed our staff and said, who's the one guy that's been the biggest surprise in terms of his production from where we anticipated when practice started October 12 it'd be Henry by far. He's scored it well, he's shot a high percentage, he's rebounded the heck out of the ball and obviously if you rebound it as he's rebounding it right now, as I've told him before he may mess up some other things that we've got to get better at right now, but when you rebound like that it's hard to not play him. You almost have to play if he's rebounding like that."

- Sitting out this season due to transfer rules, guard Rayvonte Rice showed flashes of play where he looked a potential go-to scorer. He finished with seven points, hitting a 3 and attacking the basket. His play, overall, was inconsistent though.

"I thought that he did some good things," Groce said. "I want him to be aggressive, and I want him to attack. A big thing with him, I want him to shoot a high percentage and obviously that involved decision-making when it comes shot selection. (Monday) was one of those nights where he probably felt like, hey, it's the only I'm going to run out here on the 94 by 50 in Assembly Hall until next year so I'm going to get my money's worth. I thought maybe a time or two he made a decision or two I'd rather him not make, but he was aggressive early on. He was aggressive, and he drew fouls and moved the ball.

Rice will fill the role of practice player this season, but both he and the coaching staff are preparing for him to play a key role in season's to come.

"Ray wants to be good," Groce said. "He listens and he's coachable. Obviously he's a big part of our future here."

- What Groce liked:

"I thought that our work on the glass, we had not offensive rebounded the ball very well in practice and I thought we were really good on the glass offensively. Now how good were our block outs? You know it's always a catch-22 when you're playing yourself. You tell one team great job on the offensive glass and you tell the other team you need to block out.

"I think we for sure competed. I told them that in the locker room. I loved our energy, and I loved our unselfishness. There were numerous possessions where guys made the extra pass and kept moving it. I told them as long as we give that effort, have great attitude and we're that unselfish, then we'll continue to work to get them better."

- What Groce didn't care for:

"I didn't think our screening was very good," he said. "In fact I thought it was pathetic. It was bad. Other than ball screens, you know, our off-ball screens weren't very good. We've got to clean that up. Our underneath out-of-bounds execution wasn't very good. We've got to clean that up."

Too many outside shots (10-of-38 for the game):

"Part of it is we have jump shooters," he said. "That's who we have. Paul and Richardson and Griffey and Henry have been shooting the ball well lately. Bertrand's shooting really well in practice, shot it really well tonight. That's going to be part of it, but we want to have a blend. We want to have a mixture of a paint attack with the 3-point attack."

Offensive pace:

"We want to play faster," he said. "I thought tonight we were picking and choosing how hard we ran early when our conditioning was less a factor. I think at times we ran, but it's one of those deals where as I said before, you say you want to run, every player raises their hand until they realize what that really means from a conditioning standpoint and ability to do that every time you're supposed to run, you run whether you receive that pass in advance or not, you still got to run every single time. We were I think just OK with that tonight, but we can get better."

The IlliniPlaybook Player of the Game: D.J. Richardson – 18 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Richardson was solid all night, adding five rebounds and two steals. He's another player that's earned praise from Groce for his offseason work. Richardson spent a great deal of time in spring and summer with assistant Jamall Walker, not only working out on the court but also watching tape. One key for his aggressiveness, he said, is how comfortable he is with the new offense.

"I'm used to it," he said. "I watched a lot of film with coach Walker from when he was at Ohio. I'm kind of used to it. We're putting in new stuff each week by the day. I'm learning fast, and I'm helping other guys get better at it."

Surprise stat of the game: Mike Shaw's 11 rebounds.

Needs to improve: Shooting percentage. For the game, the Orange team shot 33.9 percent; the Blue team 39.1. 3-point shooting: Orange team, 25 percent; Blue team 27.3. Free-throw shooting: Orange team, 56.5 percent; Blue team, 0 percent (0-2).

To be determined: Brandon Paul's role – Where Will Paul start this season? Tracy Abrams has a big say in that. But in a broader sense, can Paul become a top player in the Big Ten? Monday's 4-of-13 performance leaves that unsettled.

What it all means: Monday night's scrimmage was a good experience for all involved. The fans got to see a taste of a new brand of Illinois basketball and everybody got to play in some capacity. The starting lineup and accompanying rotation is starting to take shape, but is by no means settled. Egwu appears vastly improved from a year ago. Richardson's game has expanded as well. Those are the personnel positives. There are still question marks – who starts at point? Is Paul ready to lead? Is this team capable of playing as fast as Groce prefers? Is this team tough enough? Can players like Myke Henry help make up for an overall lack of size down low by overachieving in the rebounding deparment? These are all questions the team can next try to answer Saturday against Lewis.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories