Toughness There, Execution in Progress

With the non-conference portion of the test completed, Coach John Groce sees what he likes and offers a few areas for improvement.

So, what would happen if John Groce wasn't coaching Illinois and found himself in an arena where the Illini were playing?

Not John Groce the basketball coach. John Groce the basketball fan.

What would that guy think?

"I'd say, 'man I like watching those guys play because they play hard,'" Groce said.

Groce the Fan would approve. And the Coach has to like this version of the Illini, too.

Illinois sits 11-2 with out-of-conference play wrapped up with Saturday's 74-60 win over Illinois-Chicago.

Losses to Georgia Tech and Oregon exposed some issues with execution down the stretch.

However, the prize of the first two months -- a 65-64 win over rival Missouri -- showed that Groce's bunch has grit and a tough-nosed mentality.

"We've been for the most part, we've been pretty tough," he said. "I shouldn't say it surprises me because we beat that drum everyday. I think our consistency in the areas of toughness and togetherness has been exceptional and has been a big reason why we've been competitive in every game that we've played."

Now the Big Ten looms. The Illini kicks off conference play at home versus Indiana on Tuesday. With four teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25 and a host of schools as competitive as ever in the next tier down, the Big Ten may be as tough as ever.

Toughness is great, but it can't be the only thing a group is known for when it meet teams equally as tough.

"If we want to continue to get better then we need that execution in certain areas to start to match our toughness and the grit that our team has played with," Groce said.

Groce listed execution out of timeouts and sharpening details on offense as the most important areas for improvement.

"If we can continue to work on that and they let us coach them, which they've been great with that, I think we have a chance to really improve in that execution area," Groce said.

And just because the toughness has been there doesn't mean it always will be. While the work will be put in to improve the finer details, Groce says the staff will continue to stress the importance of playing with the same grit and determination that the players have displayed to this point.

"I've been doing it long enough, (not) to assume that that toughness and grit is going to be there every day and it will never go away and it's automatic," Groce said. "I think it would be very, very foolish. We're going to continue to beat that drum because that's the most important thing."

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