CHAMPAIGN — It has been an encouraging start to the Illini men’s basketball season but coach John Groce has been around long enough to know what’s coming next:
Groce isn’t conceding anything, but he knows his team is not among the favorites to win the EA Sports Maui Invitational, which takes place next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Hawaii. As a warmup to that, Illinois flew Tuesday from Chicago to Honolulu, where it will take on the University of Hawaii at 11:30 p.m. (Central) on Friday.
After beating Colgate in the season opener, then convincingly swatting aside St. Francis-Brooklyn on Monday, Groce was pleased with what’s happened so far but cautious to warn that much tougher tests await.
“Right now, we haven’t been popped in the mouth yet,” Groce said after Illinois’ 89-64 victory over St. Francis-Brooklyn. “It will happen. And we have to respond to that.”
That’s the next test for an Illini team whose core players were part of a group that was notoriously bad at dealing with adversity a year ago. That team was 15-3 in mid-January, then began losing and couldn’t stop. Illinois lost 12 of its final 14 and current seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey were around at the bitter end when coach Bruce Weber lost his job.
Even before this season, Groce said he was aware of that team’s inability to reverse adversity.
So he’s preparing for the inevitability of it, perhaps in the next few days.
Actually, it’s a weak field in Maui, which has become one of the top early-season tournaments in college basketball. No. 11 North Carolina is the only team ranked in the current Associated Press top 25. Three others — Butler, Texas and Marquette — are receiving votes in that poll.
Illinois opens play in Maui at 11 p.m. on Monday against a Southern California team that is directed by former Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill.
Groce is warning his players not to get too excited about a pair of early victories.
“I have tried to tell them from day one, we have to stay somewhere in the (emotional) middle,” Groce said. “It’s never as good as it seems and never as bad as it seems. Contrary to popular opinion in Champaign, we’re playing well, but you are not rock stars. And when we lose, you are not scum either.”
He does, however, believe his team is building a layer of confidence after seeing how practice habits can transfer into game action.
“Confidence is something that is earned,” he said. “I wish I could just wave a magic wand and say, ‘You’re confident.’
“But because of how hard they have worked starting last spring, then in the summer and now in the fall, their unselfishness and their buy-in is growing. That allows you to be more consistent. Their confidence is probably pretty high right now.
“We’ll see. We’re going to learn a lot about our team. We’re going to play some great competition on this trip. We want to continue to grow.
“Our goal every year is to play our best basketball at the end of the year. You do that by trying to grind it out and play a little better every day.
“We have been beating the drum about being consistent in everything we do. We learned a valuable lesson in practice when we only practiced well for two of three days, then didn’t play a complete game (in an exhibition victory over West Chester). They are seeing the translation there.”
But when Groce’s team strung together three strong practices prior to Monday’s game, they responded with their strongest performance to date, building a 35-point second-half lead before coasting to a 25-point victory.
“We’re putting deposits in that bank every day,” Groce said. “That’s why our team is getting better.”
Groce likes that the pace of play has increased. Maintaining a faster tempo will be a challenge during the four games against better competition in Hawaii.
“We can be explosive offensively,” he said. “We had six guys make threes in the first half Friday night. (Seven players made threes on Monday).
“I think we’re playing faster than we were in the Orange & Blue scrimmage and against Lewis (in an exhibition game). But I still think we have another gear. We’re getting closer.”
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