Coach John Groce didn't like the way his team started in Friday's win over IPFW. He didn't think his guys competed with enough toughness in the first half, when the Illini trailed by 11 before making a comeback. "I think it's more mental than it is physical in my opinion," Groce said
"We did do a couple things (in practice) that physically emphasized it, but I really think it starts between the ears."
Last week saw the Illini (7-0) play in Las Vegas against UNLV and then return to Champaign for the date with IPFW. The team practiced on Thanksgiving, a turnaround that Groce says the older players handled well for the most part while the freshmen struggled.
"We don't have any excuses around here," Groce said. "That will never be tolerated.
"Often times you play like you practice. Hopefully it was a great learning experience for them, and they can learn you have to bring it every day. You play like you practice. You have to prepare for every game the same, with the same mindset. I didn't think we did that headed into Friday."
Tracy Abrams and Ray Rice sealed the victory against the Mastodons of the Summit League. Rice had 17 points and had a key steal late in the game. Abrams scored 12 of his 15 in the second half and had four steals. Groce was happy with his veterans, but said, "It takes everybody. I've been saying that the whole time. This is a team who's margin for error is not real large and we have to make sure that everybody's ready to go and we get it done by committee. I don't think we got it done by committee on Friday night. We had a few guys step up and kind of will us a little bit against a very good basketball team."
The bench scored only three points Friday, as Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate each logged 13 minutes and Malcolm Hill played nine. That group needs to contribute more Tuesday against the Yellow Jackets, as the two teams square off in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for the second straight year.
The Illini won 75-62 in Champaign last year. While Illinois has a drastically different look, Georgia Tech (5-3) returns four starters and added transfer Trae Golden (averaging a team-high 13.5 points per game) from Tennessee.
"They're bigger, they're stronger," Groce said. "You can tell some of those guys have got in the weight room in the offseason. They've added strength and weight, especially on the interior."
WHAT: The Illini travel to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Tip is set for 6:15 CT.
WHO TO WATCH: Rayvonte Rice. The junior was named Big Ten Player of the Week after averaging 21 points and eight rebounds in two wins last week.
Robert Carter, Jr. The sophomore has posted three double-doubles and leads the ACC with 9.5 rebounds per game.
WHAT'S NEXT: The Illini return to Atlanta to play Auburn Sunday. With finals approaching, the team will fly to Champaign following the Tech game to focus on academics.
"We've got to do a good job there," Groce said.