On Your Mark, Get Set...

Illinois gets underway with Friday's season-opener versus Colgate.

CHAMPAIGN - The first season of the John Groce era officially gets underway Friday when Illinois hosts Colgate at 7 p.m. in Assembly Hall.

Season openers routinely bring forth excitement from the players, coaches and fans. But the first time seeing a team play for a new coach provides different emotions -- hope, curiosity, uncertainty and more.

"Oh, very excited," Groce said about the season opener. "It's amazing to think the seven months have passed this fast and it's finally here. It's an exciting time of year."

Groce was named the 17th coach in Illini history in March following a nine-year run by Bruce Weber. Since that time Groce has feverishly worked to install his brand of basketball culture with current players while also criss-crossing the map on the recruiting trail.

"They had a great spring, a great summer, a great fall -- I really appreciate their buy-in and receptiveness to the new staff and the new system," Groce said of his current group.

Illinois must replace it's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer from a year ago after Meyers Leonard was selected in the first round of the NBA draft.

Four seniors, guards D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and forwards Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin, are expected to lead the charge.

"Can't wait. First senior game, real senior game, can't wait to get out there," Richardson said.

Friday's game with Colgate marks the fourth meeting all-time between the two schools, but is the first since 1961.

The Raiders return 11 players from last year's 8-22 team, including seniors Mitch Rolls (8.6 point per game last season), John Brandenburg (5.2 points) and junior Pat Moore (9.9 points). Groce said the Raiders favor a fast pace and take plenty of 3-point shots, providing an early challenge for his team's defense.

"They run a lot of good stuff, a lot of good actions that are going to put us in a situation where we're going to be forced to communicate, which is what this team needs," he said.

When asked earlier this week, Groce said he felt his team was further along in picking up the offensive system than on the defensive end of the floor. Friday provides a chance for improvement with both aspects.

"I would say we need to get better at both," guard Tracy Abrams said. "Our D has been pretty solid, but we need to get better and more consistent with it for 40 minutes."

Groce added: "We're not quite where we need to be yet. I do think we're further along than when we started on (Oct.) the 12th."

Friday's game is the first of two the Illini will play at home before heading to Hawaii for a week for the Maui Invitational. Following Thanksgiving, Illinois plays five of the next six games at home, including a Nov. 28 matchup with Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Neutral site contests with Missouri (Dec. 22) and Auburn (Dec. 29) conclude the out of conference schedule.

That's when the heat turns up, as the Big Ten is considered one of the better conferences in the nation.

But the focus, for now, is on Colgate and making the necessary improvements for what is to come down the road.

"I think we're close, but we've still got a lot of little things to learn," Abrams said. "It's still all new. I think as we keep going we're going to learn little things and get better with it."

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