CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce began his professional career as a high school math teacher.
So it should come as no surprise that he saw Sunday’s 83-67 win over Northwood University out of Michigan as a learning experience for his young Illini.
“This will be a great teaching tool,’’ said Groce referring to how his team’s defensive effort slacked off when the Illini went cold from the field, making just 1-of-20 during 14 minute stretch.
“Hopefully, the thing we learn is that when we didn’t shoot the ball very well there for a stretch, that you cannot tie your defensive effort and execution to how well things are going on offense,’’ he added. “That is a step that we will be looking to make.’’
Northwood went from trailing 41-17 with 6 minutes, 14 seconds left in the first half to taking a 48-47 lead on a 3-pointer by Khalid King with 13:25 left in the second half. The Timberwolves had nine of their 17 offensive rebounds during that stretch.
“Like coach said, we were tying our defense to making or missing shots,’’ said Illinois sophomore guard Mike LaTulip, who had 14 points in 14 minutes. “Obviously, we hit a little cold patch there, and I thought we stayed poised a majority of the time, in spite of them coming back from being down 24 points. That’s something that is a positive about our team, the fact that we can show that we were poised throughout situations like those was positive.’’
Rayvonte Rice, a red-shirt junior out of Champaign Centennial, scored 12 of his game-high 16 points during a second-half 21-7 run for the Fighting Illini. Rice sat out the first 11 minutes of Sunday’s game for an undisclosed reason. Groce said it was a coach’s decision.
“Whether I start or not, that is not going to affect my effort in the game,’’ Rice said. “My job is to go out there and compete with my team, and I felt like that’s what we did.’’
In the final 13 minutes, Northwood didn’t get a single offensive rebound and the Timberwolves were just 7-of-18 from the field, while the Illini were 10-of-15 during the same stretch.
“At the end of the game, our defense was better than it was in the first half and that fueled us getting out in transition,’’ Groce said. “But, I’m concerned about the 17 offensive rebounds. They did get 24 against Miami (Ohio), and they are juniors and seniors and (Wes) Wilcox’s case, he is 25 or older. We were playing against some men down there, which is good. We needed that, but we have to find a way not to give up 17 offensive rebounds.’’
In a game that featured “wild runs” according to Groce, did he think it would help his team?
“You don’t want to go through runs, you want to be more consistent,’’ he said. “But, can you find a positive in that, can you turn lemons into lemonade, yeah, sure. You play 35 games and you are going to see everything.
“To experience that and go to the film, you can show them how you cannot tie your defensive effort and execution to whether you are making shots on offense.’’
Groce pointed out that that separating offense and defense is something last year’s experience team with seniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin did very well, especially during the NCAA Tournament victory over Colorado.
“This may be a great tool to teach that,’’ said Groce, who also called a timeout in the second half after allowing his team to fight through a scoring run in the first exhibition against McKendree. “I thought we were getting tentative. I didn’t like the look in our eyes.
“I just wanted to remind them, this is who we are. We are fine here, show great poise and let’s get some stops.’’
While Groce saw plenty of things to teach his team, he was also very impressed with the Northwood squad, which is coached by former Danville Area Community College assistant coach Jeff Rekeweg.
“I told their older guys after the game that I was really impressed with their fight and shot making when they got behind,’’ Groce said. “I like their experience on the interior, and I thought their size and physicality would be good for our team.’’
Rekeweg is in his fourth season with the Timberwolves and they are coming off a 13-14 season. Wilcox had a game-high 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Will Bowles added 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Illinois junior point guard Tracy Abrams did not play on Sunday because of a mild hamstring strain.
“He is day-to-day,’’ Groce said. “He did fight me and try to go — that’s a good sign. It was my decision.’’
Abrams figures to be in the lineup this Friday when Illinois opens the season at home against Alabama State. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. at the State Farm Center.