Five From Fletch

Five things of interest stemming from the season-opening win against Colgate.

1. Brandon Paul doing his thing. Clearly Brandon Paul had a good night. I wrote about his all-around performance following the game, but I think he deserves top billing here in the FFF as well.

You probably already know the stats by now: 20 points, 8-of-15 shooting (3-8 on 3s), eight rebounds, six assists, two charges, two turnovers.

I felt Paul amassed those numbers completely in the flow of the game. He didn't force shots. He let things come to him. And he did a good job of swinging the ball on the perimeter. He assisted on two of Tracy Abrams 3-pointers, a combination that needs to continue to develop as the season moves along.

His two turnovers were of the "good variety," in that he was trying to make something happen instead of being careless. The first came on an attempt to feed the post. The second was on a drive to the basket and he had a shot blocked after initiating contact.

Paul has a history of starting strong. For his career, he's averaged 18.5 points in season openers, including 14 last year against Loyola, 18 points in 21 minutes in 2010 versus UC Irvine and 22 his freshman year against Edwardsville. In those games though he didn't come close to totaling the rebound/assist totals he did Friday. That's a great sign.

So… moving forward he needs to keep the momentum, play consistent and bring it on both ends of the court.

"Coach does a good job of rotating guys in and out, so I knew if I was tired somebody was going to come in for me," Paul said.

Speaking of that…

2. A continues cycle off the bench. As Paul alluded to, coach John Groce cycled players in and out all game long. In the first half, eight players saw action – all eight played at least eight minutes, six played at least 10, five played at least 13.

The starting lineup was: Paul, Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Nnanna Egwu. Griffey was a bit of surprise given that he didn't start either exhibition. What that did though was enable Joe Bertrand, Sam McLaurin and Myke Henry to come off the bench.

The more I think about it, the more I like that setup. Griffey can stretch the floor as a 3-point shooting 4 that gives excellent effort and Egwu can stay in the paint as a true 5 – but the good thing is, the way Groce substituted it doesn't seem to matter much who starts. At the first break, Bertrand, Henry and McLaurin entered the game for Paul, Egwu and Griffey.

That lineup meant: Abrams at the one, Richardson at the 2, Betrand at the 3, Henry at the 4, McLaurin at the 5. Once again, Henry is a 4 that can stretch the floor. He immediately hit his first shot, a 3. And Sam took over as the 5 in the paint, working hard on the offensive and defensive glass.

Less than two minutes passed and Paul came in for Abrams, taking over the one. At the next whistle, Egwu came in for Henry. In terms of forwards, having Sam and Egwu in the game together, in my opinion, offers the best defensive combo at the 4 and 5. It's also the more traditional look on the offensive end. Egwu's shot has improved. He was taking looks all the way out to the short corner, but didn't have a good night shooting the ball overall.

Anyway, you get the point. I won't list all the substitutions in the game, but that should give you an idea of how fast Groce was mixing and matching and all the different lineup combos he was using.

Also, Groce did a lot of subbing in and out for inbounds plays, both on offense and defense. He likes to have Egwu in to defend inbounds passes.

"Give me one," Groce yelled out at Egwu on one occassion, indicating he wanted Egwu to go for the steal or tip the pass.

Griffey or Henry came in on offensive inbounds plays, clearly for their shooting. Griffey hit one three coming out of a timeout. It was right in front of the Colgate bench and it drove the Raiders staff crazy.

That kind of subbing made it seem like players were constantly coming in and out.

"It will take some time for them to get used to that," Groce said.

For the game, Abrams, once again, paced the team in minutes played with 32. Paul logged 30, Richardson 29. Griffey, Egwu, Bertrand and McLaurin each played at least 18 minutes.

For now, it looks to be an eight-man rotation. Devin Langford came in midway through the second half, signifying him as the "ninth guy." Groce says he wants to play with nine and Langford entered the game with energy, getting an offensive board on his first college possession. Still, either he or Mike LaTulip is going to require more time to be ready for more minutes.

3. Took care of the basketball. The final exhibition left me uneasy about the team's ballhandling and decision-making – 21 turnovers isn't going to work. Friday offered vast improvement in both of those areas, as Illinois had only 12 giveaways.

Groce said following the game he's pleased if the total is in the 10 to 12 range, so the team was right on his goal.

"I should have known from my teaching days that you usually get what you ask for," he said. "Maybe next time I'll ask for two. I'm speaking sarcastically, of course."

As I mentioned about Paul, most of the 12 turnovers came while players were trying to create instead of from careless mistakes. Paul's two were like that. Richardson had one where he was trying to wrap a pass around a defender down low. Abrams threw an oop attempt too high for Egwu. Henry and Egwu each had a travelling violation trying to make a move or drive to the basket.

You can live with those kinds of turnovers, especially when there's only 12 of them.

4. Dominating the glass. Illinois won the rebounding battle 47-32 thanks to a complete effort from the bigs and the guards.

Egwu and McLaurin were all over the offensive glass, combining for nine boards on that end of the floor. There were some easy layups missed by both those players after getting those boards, so there could have been more than the 21 second chance points the Illini finished with.

"Sam's a tough kid. He's tough. He cares a lot about winning," Groce said. "I really respect those two things about Sam at a high level."

Egwu and McLaurin had some help. Paul had eight, Richardson, who I thought was extremely active all night, had seven, as did Henry, and Bertrand finished with six.

Colgate wasn't exactly a big team, so let's not be too dramatic about the rebounding yet. But it's good to see the effort and to note that 21 of the 47 boards came from players off the bench. That's useful.

5. Pace, ball movement and the 3. I thought the team played with good pace, pushing the ball up the court while staying under control. Groce credited assistant Dustin Ford for staying on Abrams to push the tempo for most of the night. He recalled one instance where Ford jumped on the sophomore for walking the ball up the floor after a dead ball.

"We're getting closer. We're not quite there yet," Groce said.

The ball movement once the half-court got set up, for the most part, seemed good, too. Many of those first half 3s were assisted shots, but there was usually a pass before the pass that led to the shot. That's what you want.

And on those 3s, I know it might worry some to see so many taken. Groce mentioned that a few early ones were either forced or settled on – a Richardson pull-up 3 after a steal comes to mind – but mostly that's what Colgate was giving Illinois. So that's what they took advantage of.

"They learning to take what the defense gives them," Colgate coach Matt Langel said.

Langel said Abrams made really good decisions, especially in the first half. His game plan, he said, was to stop the ball on screens and contain the screener. There wasn't much action for the Illinois' bigs rolling to the basket, at least early, creating open opportunities from 3. Abrams did a good job of finding the shooters and creating enough penetration to give them open looks or to initiate the swing passes and ball movement.

Abrams himself was 3-of-5 from 3, but he did a good job of attacking the rim, too.

"I'm pretty comfortable with me and my teammates handling the ball," Abrams said. "It's a work in progress. We've just got to stay confident and positive."


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