1) Tracy Abrams played the way he needs to. The sophomore had an "outstanding" week of practice, according to coach John Groce, and was rewarded with a place in the starting lineup.
Let's get the disclaimer out of the way early -- I know the competition wasn't all that great. West Chester played hard though and nearly made the NCAA Tourney last year. Also, the Rams had a few older guards that could play, so it was a good mock run for the guys on the perimeter.
Anyway, I liked the way Abrams played. He got into the lane off the dribble well and was looking to score. That led to five shots around the basket and 10 free throw attempts. He had seven rebounds, which is a nice bonus from the lead guard. Three-point shot is still a work in progress.
The biggest stat: one turnover. I liked how Abrams was patient, not with looking to score, but with how he distributed the ball. There were a few times in the first exhibition where it looked like Abrams was trying too hard to get the ball to teammates, perhaps where it was "supposed to go" instead of where the flow dictated. Sunday he looked much more comfortable and let things happen. He only had two assists, but he didn't force things which can be just as important as creating.
"He's starting to understand what we want more," Groce aid. "Starting to get more comfortable with what we need from him at both ends of the floor."
I like Abrams starting at the One. Will be interesting to see how Groce handles the starting lineup in the season opener. I think Abrams has to be out there at least 30 minutes a game, whether he starts or not.
2) Brandon Paul's turnovers. Paul was trying to feed the post. I don't know if that's something that the coaches emphasized with Paul or all guards going into the game, but three of Paul's five turnovers were on forced passes into the post. One was a traveling violation and the other was on a dribble drive where he simply made a poor decision (was a little out of control) to pass the ball instead of pulling up for a jump shot.
Despite the turns, Groce kept encouraging Paul to feed it down low. "Brandon good pass," he said after Paul made a successful pass to Sam McLaurin. "Great job."
I'll have more on Groce's positive reinforcement later.
Also on Brandon, I thought he did a good job of getting into the lane. He struggled to convert. At other times I thought he took a few shots that were out of rhythm with the offense, but he hit a majority of them. One was a 3 and the other a pull up jumper near the top of the lane. I doubted the shot selection as he released both shots, but couldn't question the result.
Maybe what I'm hitting on here -- Abrams not forcing it, Paul taking a few shots out of rhythm, D.J. Richardson's almost exclusively shooting 3s -- is the offense was a little out of sync, which isn't surprising given how early it is.
We're on a tangent here, but West Chester pressed (what looked like a 2-1-2 mostly). While the guards didn't turn the ball over against the pressure, it did slow the game down, which an effective press will do. Many times the offense wasn't initiated until there was around 20 seconds on the shot clock. That seemed to throw things off. Probably will be a good teaching point in film study this week.
3) Groce's encouragement. On two occasions I watched Groce have prolonged conversations with players as they subbed out. The first happened when Myke Henry picked up his third foul in the first half. The second when Joe Bertrand was called for a flagrant foul (there was no intent to injure or anything like that).
Both of those talks looked to be of the encouraging variety.
Also, I jotted down a few things he said throughout the game:
"Nice play Mike. Just settle down." -- To Mike LaTulip following a pass thrown out of bounds.
"Way to drive the ball" to Abrams after being fouled on a drive.
"Good effort, good effort" after McLaurin battled for offensive rebound.
"There you go Trace," after Abrams pulled down an offensive board.
There was a lot of positive reinforcement going on out there, although later in the second half I'm not sure Groce was as patient.
4) I like Sam McLaurin's energy. And I liked the look of he and Nnanna Egwu playing alongside each other in the starting lineup. Egwu struggled to score, but was effective in other areas. Combined those two had 20 rebounds, which is going to be crucial for this team this season.
"The one thing I like about (Sam) is you know what you're getting from him everyday," Groce said. "He clearly thinks about winning and the team first. Sam's got a great mindset."
McLaurin battled all night and ended up with four offensive boards for his effort. He runs the floor well, which is something Egwu does, too. Sam seems like a smart player, very well rounded. He's a heady defender and isn't a liability in the post on plays where he doesn't shoot it -- can pass, dribble some, etc.
I should have done a better job tracking how many charges Sam took and attempted because he was involved in a few of those, too.
Speaking of which…
5) Foul trouble down low. Props to Egwu for playing with more discipline Sunday. He had two fouls against West Chester after being whistled for four versus Lewis, so there's some improvement.
Otherwise though, the bigs struggled with fouls. Henry had four and McLaurin and Griffey each had three.
The game was called pretty tight, so maybe I'm making a big deal over nothing. Illinois finished with 23 fouls, West Chester with 26. May have just been one of those nights, but the bigs need to make those fouls count (going for rebounds, attempting to take charges, defensive plays) instead of picking up cheap ones.
- A few quick hitters -- I love Bertrand's athleticism. I think his dribbling is coming along. It's not great, but he had a few compact crossovers into the lane that were impressive. I watched him shoot in warm-ups -- his stroke is there. Needs to continue getting better with the shot in the game, but he can create for himself -- which usually leads to creating for others.
- Richardson hung around the perimeter tonight. Five of his six shots were 3s. How much he's focused on being more aggressive and attacking the basket has been a running topic of conversation. Not sure if he was thinking too much or what, but he wasn't playing with the same confidence as last week. I know of at least one instance where Groce wanted him to shoot and he passed up the look. "Your job is to take the shot, shoot it," Groce said following the game.
- Groce wants to play nine players. I'm not sure when the team will be deep enough for that to happen. I think he's comfortable with eight right now. LaTulip appears to be that No. 9 guy right now. Groce says LaTulip has practiced really well. Might take some time for the game to slow down for him, which is understandable.
- The defense looked really good in the later part of the first half, but was inconsistent for most of the game. This is a topic I plan to dig into this week in interviews.