Finally, Basketball is Back!

Illinois hosts the first of two exhibitions Thursday at 7 p.m. against McKendree.

CHAMPAIGN - After nearly a month of practice, Illinois players say they're tired of playing against each other.

They're ready to play another team.

The first chance comes Thursday at 7 p.m. in the season's opening exhibition against McKendree.

"We've been going for what seems like a while now against each other battling every day," senior forward Jon Ekey said. "It's exciting to get to go against somebody else."

It's been a week since the team held it's public intrasquad scrimmage in the State Farm Center. Coach John Groce wasn't happy with that performance.

"I didn't think we played hard enough. I didn't think we ran nearly fast enough," Groce said. "I thought our positioning was bad. I thought our screen defense was not really good. We let the ball into the post at will."

Since then, "knock on wood," Groce said, the team has practiced well. The players watched the film and made corrections.

"I feel like we've gotten a whole lot better since the Orange and Blue (scrimmage)," junior guard Tracy Abrams said. "Obviously we've still got work to do but I feel like we've taken a big step. We've got to keep making steps."

Many of those steps pertain to the lineup and rotations. Groce is breaking in many newcomers and trying to figure out what and who works best together. Groce said the starting lineup was still undetermined heading into Wednesday's practice.

"We've got a dogfight at a couple positions here," Groce said.

"Practice matters. For the first exhibition game I've always stayed true to that. I don't know yet."

Groce said Ekey, the transfer from Illinois State, has graded out highest to this point, with junior center Nnanna Egwu a close second. Those two will be in the starting lineup, but that's not entirely important at this stage of the process.

"So far we've just been switching the lineups every day, not really knowing who's going to be playing with who," Ekey said. "But now having some rotations and who will be getting more time it will be more competitive. Guys will be fighting for spots and maybe just want to get some more minutes. It will make practice a little more competitive."

Don't know much about McKendree? Don't feel bad. Groce and his players aren't well versed regarding the Bearcats from Lebanon, Ill., playing their first season as full members NCAA Division II in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.

"On purpose first exhibition, I do it this way every year, my whole focus has been on our team," Groce said.

He knows McKendree plays man to man on defense and runs a pick-and-roll offense. But that's about as much scouting as Groce wants his guys digesting.

"Now the second exhibition game, especially with a young team, we'll scout in full," he said. "We'll scout almost full fledged just like a normal game to give our guys experience with that, but at this stage of the game, we're at such an embryonic stage with our team I didn't want to take up a ton of time with the opponent at this stage. I wanted it to be more about us."

The second and final exhibition is Nov. 3 and the season opener against Alabama State is in 15 days. That doesn't leave much time for Groce's team to finish preparations for his second season as head coach. The process is and will be an ongoing experience, one that will take another stride Thursday.

"We're still just learning a lot of the little things that Coach wants us to get either on defense or offense," Ekey said. "Just cleaning everything up."

Added Abrams: "Hopefully we can just come out, play hard, follow the system, just do what we've been working on and try to find ways to get better."

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