CHAMPAIGN - For Coach John Groce, the effort his Illinois squad gave in the season-opening win against Colgate was encouraging.
The hard play and hustle indicated full buy-in to what Groce is trying to install in his first season. It also provided a means to get better moving forward.
"I told the guys after the game the greatest thing about how hard they played and how unselfishly they played is the fact that now we can coach them up and get better at execution," he said.
"When you don't play hard you can't evaluate execution at either end of the floor, offensively or defensively."
The Illini (1-0) play St. Francis-Brooklyn (1-0) tonight at 7 p.m. in Assembly Hall -- a chance to take another step in the right direction.
"For us to take that next step we've got to execute some things a little bit better than what we did, so we got better at a lot of things over the last two days and our intention is to play even better basketball," Groce said.
Areas for improvement, listed by Groce, were mostly on the defensive end of the floor. Groce said he wanted the team to play better in both transition and in the half court defense.
As timing of the schedule would have it, St. Francis enters as a team that prefers a fast pace and a group adept at exploiting dribble penetration with 3-point shooting.
"They attack, they're aggressive, they play a tempo and a pace that I think for me, as a coach, we'd like to play that way," Groce said. "I've really appreciated their pace and tempo and how physical and aggressive and tough they are."
Illinois beat Colgate 75-55 Friday, led by Brandon Paul's 20 points. Following the game, Groce said he was mostly pleased with the offensive effort, which included 13 3-pointers and 19 offensive rebounds.
Still, Groce wants an improved defense, and he's still tinkering with the rotation, which consisted predominately of eight players in the opener. He's also working to enhance the team's overall toughness, something that was lacking last year.
Last season, St. Francis took Seton Hall to overtime and nearly won. Groce says the Terriers "won't be shaking in their boots" prior to tip-off.
"We'll be challenged in all those areas, especially with an older team (in St. Francis) with guys that are as experienced as they guys that they have," Groce said. "I think it will be a good test for us, a good challenge for us. We'll learn more about our when the game's over."