- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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I don’t put much stock into exhibitions. The goal, for most coaches, is to learn more about their respective programs and shake off the rust from the offseason.
Sloppy play is expected. Even for the best.
Illinois’ struggles in its 75-66 exhibition win over Division II opponent West Chester (Pa.) Sunday and new head coach John Groce’s postgame comments, however, might warrant more scrutiny than usual.
"We're going to keep doing what we're doing," Groce said. "What? I'm just going to panic and do something different? We're going to do what we do and do what we do better."
There are certainly improvements to be made.
The Illini finished their win with 21 turnovers, five of them coming from Brandon Paul, to only seven assists. West Chester outscored the Illini 46-31 in the second half, cutting a 27-point Illini lead to only 10 points, prompting Groce to reinsert his starters in the final two minutes.
"It was sporadic or random at best," Groce said. "I thought we played well for about 20 minutes of it. … Those (statistics) aren't up to our standards. These guys have some pretty high standards."
Point guard Tracy Abrams finished with a game-high 17 points to go with seven rebounds and three steals.
It's safe to expect him to be instrumental in the Illini's rotation, which Groce said he is finalizing.
Through the exhibitions, he has started the players who graded out the highest at practices and he has kept a measured chart on how rotations worked together. Groce hopes to have a set rotation, which he expects to be about nine players deep, by Tuesday.
Just days before the start of the 2012-13 season, life within Illinois basketball remains unsettled.
Bruce Weber had talent. And even though the program missed the tournament multiple times in recent years, the Illini displayed its full potential in spurts.
But an unsettling trend developed after the team reached the NCAA title game in 2005. The Illini could contend with the best in the Big Ten and beyond on their best days. Those performances, however, became infrequent. And that’s something Groce has to change. Consistency is necessary in Champaign.
Yes, Groce will enjoy a lengthy grace period as he implements his system. But he’s not starting from scratch.
Paul could be an All-Big Ten performer. D.J. Richardson averaged 11.6 points per game last year. Abrams’ performance is a plus since he’s the only veteran point guard on the roster. Sam McLaurin, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, will help the Illini in the post, their greatest weakness other than point guard depth.
The latter is most troubling, considering the Illini’s 21 turnovers against a Division II team. Illinois’ 13.4 turnovers per game were the No. 2 mark in the Big Ten last season. Without Meyers Leonard inside, opponents will put more pressure on the perimeter and attack Groce’s only proven playmakers. And if they can’t control the ball, problems will persist for a team that was ranked No. 126 in offensive efficiency.
The bottom tier within the Big Ten features multiple teams with question marks. Illinois is obviously in that group. And with Richardson and Paul in the backcourt and the potential impact of McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu (if his development continues) suggests that the Illini could climb the standings as easily as the others in the group who will vie for an NCAA tournament slot.
But, this could also evolve into another season of the lukewarm basketball that Illinois has produced in recent years.
No, Sunday’s exhibition isn’t the end of the world, which is why Groce refuses to “panic.” “Worry” might be a better word for a team that will soon face Gonzaga, Missouri and the field in the Maui Invitational prior to the start of play in the Big Ten, a conference with more depth and substance than any league in America.
Again, Groce deserves time. And he has it.
But it’s difficult to rate the Illini above the current projections that expect the team to finish toward the bottom of the league. Turnover-filled performances, even in exhibitions, don’t exactly stir up optimism about the program. They spur more “here we go again” talk.
I don’t think the Illini warrant that response yet. But Groce has some perennial problems -- a few that emerged Sunday -- to correct in the coming months if he plans to avoid that reaction in the future.