Grueling Hawaii Trip Successful, Productive

Illinois' trip to Hawaii offered John Groce wins and a better understanding of his team.

Coach John Groce didn't necessarily prefer playing four games in six days in Hawaii, but the trip produced two aspects important for any team to develop in the early portion of the schedule.

In winning a true road test versus Hawaii and claiming the Maui invitational, Groce's Illinois basketball team, A) won games while he B) gained a better understanding of what his players are capable of.

"We played different styles," Groce said. "We played in different types of venues.

"I thought that doing that over the six days, playing four games in six days, put us in a situation where we had to play against really good competition, and we learned a lot about our basketball team."

The Illini (6-0) rolled into the first tough test of the Groce era on the heels of two easy home victories, games that were supposed to be won versus Colgate and St. Francis.

Those games provided teaching moments, as all live contests do, but the Hawaii trip was different.

The four-game stretch forced Illini to fight, to dig down and develop tenacity in the face of adversity. A come-from-behind win against Hawaii, capped by a buzzer-beating winner by D.J. Richardson kicked off the journey.

"We got popped in the mouth at the start of the game," Groce said. "We weren't ready, for whatever reason, mentally, more than anything else. They had a great crowd in there. It was a ruckus environment.

"It was a great experience for us to be able to battle back two different times during the game. Obviously, we didn't come back until the end, but we cut the deficit down from 16 to maybe six or seven, and they ran it back up to 16, and we had to try to cut it again, and I think the thing I learned about our guys is the resolve that they have. You know, we have a pretty tough group."

That excitement was followed by three wins in three days to take the Maui Invitational – the first such title by the school in four tries.

During his teleconference with reporters Friday, Groce bristled at the notion that the title was rendered somewhat hollow by the lack of a marquee opponent – the Illini defeated USC, Chaminade and Butler by an average of 23 points.

The likes of North Carolina, Texas and Marquette bowing out early was out of Illinois' control, a fact that doesn't diminish the accomplishment one bit, according to Groce.

"Call Roy Williams, and ask him if he thinks Butler is any good," Groce said, playfully laughing to cut the seriousness of his answer to a question that most likely didn't sit well with him. "I mean, you know, Texas I'm sure felt like they could have played better, but its one of those deals where its like, you can't get caught up in all that.

"You know, you look at the names on that trophy, we carried it up to the locker room after the game and it puts it into perspective for you, and to have a chance to win Illinois' first Maui invitational championship was a privilege and an honor. Now, is that the end all be all, absolutely not. No, that's not what we discussed in our individual and team meetings before the season started. We still have work to do."

Groce rattled off a list of areas for improvement – rebounding, staying out of foul trouble, execution of inbounds plays coming out of timeouts and performing better overall offensively.

"In no means have we arrived," Groce said. "At the same time, I think we felt blessed to have the opportunity to be able to play for that championship, and to win it."

With those goals for bettering themselves in mind, the Illini kick off a three-game home stand Sunday against Gardner Webb, a 4-3 team that upset DePaul on the road and played Iowa and North Carolina tough.

After the recent run of events, Groce said rest and hydration are paramount for success in the immediate future.

"Everybody had a chance to sleep on a couple of those flights on the way back," Groce said. "We got great rest (Thursday), you know, we've got to show up… flush some things out of our system. and be ready to roll. That's just kinda how it is. You can't have excuses, and our guys know that. That's not what we're about, but we're going to transition here well physically and mentally."

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