The Rundown: Season Opener Looms

A rundown of news and notes as Illinois prepares for Friday's season opener.

The season tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with a home game against Colgate, the much-anticipated start to coach John Groce's tenure. "Our guys are excited that the season is here. These seven months (since he was hired) have been a whirlwind and the home opener is finally here, so we're anxious to get underway," Groce said.

- Groce wasn't pleased with how his team practiced Tuesday. He said the player's attitudes were "great," but that mental focus was lacking. For a coach building a program and players adjusting to a new way of doing things, everything, good and bad, has become a teaching moment.

"I tell them all the time you have to have a mindset to deliberately practice well," Groce said. "OK, you can't just show up, get a stretch by the strength coach and then do warm up drills… and hope that you're going to have a good practice. It doesn't work that way. That's not how you prepare, so I'm trying to teach them right now mentally how to prepare for practice."

Groce says the effort has been good since practice began last month and he expressed his approval of the way the team played in spurts in each of the two exhibition wins. Consistency, though, is a team goal that's still being developed. Groce wore the word out during his weekly press conference Wednesday.

"Play consistently with our effort, consistently with our attitude, consistently in terms of our execution and our mindset," he said. "We're not quite where we need to be yet."

Case in point – Sunday's win over West Chester: After reviewing the film, Groce said he thought the team played well and with sufficient effort for 24 minutes. The other 16 left much to be desired, speaking to an inconsistency.

For Groce, that experience provided another teaching point. Here's how: The team had three practices in the West Chester cycle of the schedule.

"Two of them were outstanding, one of them wasn't very good," Groce said. "So we batted about .666, I'm a math guy, repeating."

The 24 minutes of good play in the game nearly mirrors the two-thirds figure Groce gives for when the team practiced well.

"Play like you practice. That's what I'm trying to get through to them right now and hopefully we'll be better Friday," he said.

That's how Groce is instilling what he wants each day – through patience and trial, error and understanding of what's expected moving forward. How does the team put together 40 minutes of basketball that Groce will approve of?

"Well to do that you have to practice more consistently," he said. "You have to bring it every day, you have to be unflappable, you can't have excuses, you've got to show up, you've got to lace 'em up and you've got to compete every day."

Groce said he didn't sleep well Tuesday night because of the team's performance in practice.

"That bothers me," he said. "Once that starts to bother the other 14 guys on our team and starts to bother everybody on staff and starts to infiltrate your culture, then you've really got something."

Speaking of culture…

- Friday provides a tangible landmark in the progression of the program – a game that counts in the standings.

That may be true, but the whole day will be an exercise in program building.

"It's amazing when you've been doing something for four years, even the shoot-around, the first time we had shoot-around, just teaching them what we do on the day of a game, when we eat, when they have to be there, what position work looks like, how the shoot-around starts and all those little hinges," Groce said.

The team has four seniors, but experience on game days in another coach's system doesn't do Groce much good.

"In some respect with some of those things it's like coaching 14 freshmen," he said.

That statement provides insight into some of the inconsistencies, as everybody gets on the same page and develops an understanding of expectations. This is what Groce has envisioned: "What happens is you start to build something and build a program and next year's returners are teaching the new guys and then it starts to gain momentum and that's program building," he said. "Right now we're at the introductory stages with some of that stuff, but that's also what makes it fun and challenging."

- The starting five for Friday continues to be a mystery. Groce claims he doesn't know either, as the plan is to use the next two days to toy around with a few different lineup combinations to see what works best.

For what it's worth, here's the starting lineups from each exhibition:

- versus Lewis: Myke Henry, Nnanna Egwu, D.J. Richardson, Joseph Bertran, Brandon Paul.
- versus West Chester: Sam McLaurin, Egwu, Richardson, Bertrand, Tracy Abrams.

Those lineups were decided by individual position grades for practice performances given to each player. Simply put, the player who practiced the best at each position was awarded a starting spot.

That won't necessarily be the case from here on out.

"It's going to be how do you play in concert with the other four players, what's that plus-minus chart look like, who do we want playing with who and those type of things," Groce said.

Groce said he understood the anticipation regarding the starting lineup, but said who starts and who doesn't is an "overrated" topic. He's more concerned with other aspects.

"A lot of it is who finishes the game, who plays well in the time that they're out there, who's productive per minute played, who plays our defense how we want it played while we're out there, who does their job," he said.

Again, for a coach establishing his imprint in every facet, Groce has a certain way he wants the starting lineup and playing rotation viewed by his players.

"I've always said freshmen want to play, sophomores want to start, juniors want to score, seniors want to win," Groce said. "You hope that's not true all the time and some of the younger guys can figure that out a little bit earlier."

- Speaking of that rotation, Groce holds firm that he wants nine players to see action each night.

Eight players logged at least 10 minutes in the first half of both exhibition games. Outside of that top eight, freshman guard Mike LaTulip averaged six minutes of first half run, indicating he's the front-runner for the No. 9 spot.

All that aside, Groce refused to comment on the actual rotation and who the ninth man currently is.

"We'd like to play at least that, but guys have to earn it," Groce said. "They got to earn it through how they practice. I've said it before and I mean it -- players play players, and they've got to earn the trust of our staff that they're going to be where they're supposed to be, that they're going to execute what we call."

Ah, yes, practice – the theme of the day. Ultimately, the deciding factor in determining both the starting lineup and rotation is a simple acronymn coined by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick –DYJ.

"Do your job," Groce said. "Are you doing your job?

"Those things to me are more valuable while they're out there and we're evaluating that than necessarily who starts and who doesn't. I think to players, certainly to 18, 19, 20-year olds, it means something to them. It does mean something to them. I think it would be foolish to say otherwise, but I do think it's overrated."


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