CHAMPAIGN - And so the John Groce Era is officially underway.
Fans got to see Groce's Illinois squad play an exhibition against Lewis Saturday, with the Illini winning 79-47.
While the game doesn't count in the standings, it was the first chance for Groce to see his team tested against another opponent, inside Assembly Hall and in front of fans.
"Biggest thing we were looking for was to compete with great effort and together," Groce said. "I thought early, and really for the bulk of the game, I thought our effort was terrific, we came out out to play."
The Illini never trailed, extending a 15-point halftime lead by outscoring the Flyers 44-27 in the second half.
D.J. Richardson led the team with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting and added four steals. The senior guard attributed his stellar play, which included leading the team in scoring earlier this week in the intra-squad scrimmage, to increased confidence.
"There's no reason for us to, like, hold back," he said. "We've got a point to prove this year."
Forwards Myke Henry and Sam McLaurin were in double digits, each with 11. Earlier this week Groce referred to Henry as a pleasant surprise thus far in practice, as he was once again in the starting lineup Saturday and grabbed six rebounds.
"Myke is playing harder, more consistently, which I love," Groce said. "I thought he was active on the glass, especially in the second half. There's one statistic in all of basketball you can be as selfish as you want to be and that's rebounding. He'll tell you I've told him, get them all if you want."
Illinois started the game on a 27-6 run, a streak that featured six 3-point baskets.
The Illini finished the game 9-of-18 from beyond the arc.
Lewis made the game respectable at the half, as the Illini managed only nine points in the final 10 minutes of the opening period.
The Illini led 35-20 at the half, paced by Henry and Tyler Griffey, who each had seven points.
Following the game, Groce said he's honing in on his preferred rotation. While he'd like to play nine guys each night, he's still juggling the roster to find the right mix of players and roles.
"We're getting closer," he said. "I thought I learned a lot about some guys tonight. We'll certainly take that into consideration moving forward, but you obviously as we start to get through that second exhibition game against Westchester and approach the home opener we have to solidify that early. We can always adjust it."
Of note, there was a large group of recruits on hand, including current verbal commitments Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate and Maverick Morgan. Hill and Morgan were on official visits, while Nunn and and Tate were joined by a host of players making un-officials. The group included highly regarded 2015 prospects Hyron Edwards, Charles Matthews and D.J. Williams. Local 2014 prospect Michael Finke (Centennial High) was also in attendence.
Notes: The starting lineup: Henry, Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joe Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu. … Griffey led the team with nine rebounds. "I thought Tyler practiced the last two days as good as he's practiced since (practice began the 12th)," Groce said. "It's crazy how that works. You practice well, more often than not you play well." … A few things that bothered Groce about the performance: foul trouble, turnovers and free throw shooting. Illinois committed 20 player fouls, 14 of which were in the second half. The team also finished with more turnovers (15) than assists (14). Lastly, the team shot 50 percent (9-of-18) at the free-throw line in the second half. "We've got a couple things to work on here that show up on the stat sheet for sure and I know some things will show up on the film. We'll embrace those and work to get better," Groce said. Attendance was announced as 14,299.