Answers Await

Illinois had good and bad moments against Western Carolina -- which version of the team is real? This weekend could provide the answer.

CHAMPAIGN – John Groce said he learned a valuable lesson during Illinois' 72-64 win over Western Carolina Tuesday night.

Always – always – wear dark underwear on game days. Sounds random, but the first-year coach ripped his pants during the game trying to get into defensive stance.

Safe to say, it was one of those nights for Groce and Company, who weren't exactly impressive in winning the ninth-straight game to open the season.

Groce spent much of the game in animated fashion, urging and pleading and pushing to motivate his guys to play at the desired level against the Catamounts from the Southern Conference. That led Groce to seek forgiveness post-game from the fans seated behind the bench, those who may have been witness to his fashion mishap.

"I apologize to those people," he said, drawing laughs from reporters.

There's two ways to look at Tuesday's game.

It wasn't a pretty win. The Illini struggled shooting the ball and made only seven of 24 attempted 3s. Western Carolina played like the tougher team, outrebounded the Illini (41-34) and beating them on loose balls and hustle plays. WCU shot nearly 50 percent from the field (60 percent from 3) and outscored the Illini 42-40 in the second half.

With just under six minutes to play, the game was tied and the Illini didn't look like a team ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll.

"We didn't play particularly well," Groce said. "We didn't.

"We've got smart guys, and I love these guys. They know. I can't walk in that locker room and tell them how great we played because we didn't play very well. … That's not our standard. We didn't get it done."

But Illinois, led by seniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and sophomore Tracy Abrams, found a way to win.

The last five minutes could be categorized as a resilient effort to close out. It didn't matter that shots hadn't been falling – Richardson sank two 3s and scored 10 of his 13 points down the stretch. It didn't matter that Abrams had struggled to score for the past two and half games – he poured in six straight points and didn't hesitate to attack the basket. It didn't matter that Western Carolina was keeping pace – the Illini finished on an 18-10 run to avoid the upset.

"These guys once again made big plays," Groce said.

You could call Illinois inconsistent. You could call Illinois a tough, senior-driven bunch.

Both lines of thinking are right. So which version will prevail over the course of this season? That's what everybody wants to know.

"We always play half a game or have spurts where we play good and some where we play bad," Richardson said. "You know, we've just got to be tough. They kind of out-toughed us. We've got to a do a better job of throwing haymakers all game."

This Saturday, at Gonzaga, will go a long way in providing the answers to the questions surrounding this Illinois team.

Now, it won't be the end-all, be-all – judging a team's worth by a single game, played in Spokane, Wash., against the No. 10-ranked Bulldogs on their home court isn't exactly fair.

But it will be the first in a line of games against stellar competition. The clash against Missouri isn't that far down the road. And Big Ten play begins five games from now.

Is Illinois better than preseason polls predicted (most polls pegged the team to finish eighth or ninth in the conference)? Is Illinois worthy of that No. 13 ranking? Could Illinois be even better?

All those questions remain questions after Tuesday's game. Depending on when you were watching, the answers could go in vastly different directions.

"Obviously we don't want to play Russian roulette," Groce said. "We've got to learn and we've got to learn quickly that you've got to compete and be ready to go and play a complete 40 minutes a game," Groce said.

"Overall we've got to play much better. The thing that was a little disappointing for me was we practiced better than we played. Ultimately that's my responsibility. We've got to figure that out and figure that our really quick."

Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter was in agreement with his assessment of the Illini following the game. He liked what he saw, but he wasn't sure he coached against the best version possible.

"They've got a lot of good pieces to the puzzle," he said. "I think they have a lot of room for improvement, but I think they play hard."

Against Gonzaga, though, the puzzle, one way or the other, should begin to take shape.

"We know we have to be tougher and more together as a unit over the course of the 40 minutes," Groce said. "We're very excited about the challenge on Saturday."

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