Coach John Groce held a teleconference Thursday, prior to the Illini's annual game played in the United Center, this time against Auburn.
The team has had six days off since falling to Missouri 82-73. Groce talked about his holdiay schedule, looked back on the Missouri game, previewed Auburn and discussed much more...
On how he handled the holiday break ...
JG: "Well obviously the biggest thing is I wanted to get our guys home safely and back safely and give them a chance to enjoy some time with their family and friends during the holidays. Sounds like they were able to do that. We had a couple guys that ran into some inclement weather that weren't back last night that will be back here today."
On the issues with the travel...
JG: "Devin (Langford) gets back today. Ibby (Djimde) got in late last night. Sam (McLaurin) got in late last night, (Joe) Bertrand is a little bit under the weather, so he couldn't go yesterday, he'll be fine. Normal Christmas stuff. You know, about five years ago, I used to get worked up over that stuff, but now I kind of expect it. It is what it is when you're traveling during the holidays, and I know theres a lot of snow east of here, so that affected some flights and some things you can't control."
On what he saw when he viewed the film of the Missouri game...
JG: "I would say we were about right on with what we said after the game. I thought our effort level was off the charts, I thought the reason that we were up five with eight minutes to go is because these guys are tough. We got tough guys. It wasn't because we necessarily executed anything well. You know, you look at the stat sheet at that point and you're not shooting the ball particularly well, you're not rebounding the ball particularly well, and you now how are you up five? And I think its because our team is just really together and really tough. At the end of the day, when you play really good teams, as I told them yesterday and we met last night, that's not enough. You've got to execute as well as give great effort and have toughness and togetherness. I want to make sure that I constantly remind them of that, no ticket for admission to the ball park unless you do that at a high level, so for us it was really about execution. I think maybe the one thing that I thought stood out more when watching the film was that we kept mentioning it to them at timeouts, we talked to them about it at halftime, even more traumatic after I watched it was our inability to get back in transition. We didn't get back in transition like we should have, we knew it during the game - I knew it - we were keeping track off the points, but when you watch it on film its like, wow. I thought those times where our half court defense was set, we were hard to score against. But we gave them, especially in the last eight minutes unfortunately, the disappointing thing for us was they got a lot of layups in transition, and we fouled them so they got free throws and layups, and that's not the way you really wanna go down is giving the opponent free throws and layups, and I thought we did that late. I didn't think our execution with our transition defense was very good."
Talk about Joseph Bertrand. What are the things he could add to his resume that could make him a little more complete, and a little more valuable...
JG: "He's pretty valuable right now to be honest with you. His point percentage, his three point percentage, his free throw percentage, his rebounds per minute per play, the energy boost he brings off the bench, we need him to continue to do those things for sure. I think a little bit like the other guys as well, just understanding what we're looking for in our system, and just trusting the system more. That execution piece that I talked about earlier, you know, closing out with high hands every time, not just every other time. Getting in the right position in the gap, not every other time - all the time. Juat all those little things would probably be what i would pick. Obviously we're 13 games in, and eight-plus months in, so part of that natural development with him is going to come with experience and hearing the same things over and over again every single day and getting more reps out of him in practice and in games. That probably would be what I would pick, just more of an understanding of the system on both ends and what we're trying to get would probably be what I would pick with Joseph.
At times, are guys trying to do too much?
JG: "I think so, but there's guys that try to do too much because they're about themselves, they're trying to get points, and that wasn't the case Saturday night (against Missouri). I thought what it was we had several guys out there that wanted to win and were trying to make plays to win the game, and that's a big distinction. I can live with that one. You know, we just gotta trust that system a little bit more. Let the offense work for us. I did think that we took more bad shots than normal. Obviously we had some good ones as well that we didn't make. Richardson's looks, he had nine 3s off, I thought six of them were great shots. It just didn't fall for him. He had one there in front of the bench down three, late in the game, right out of a timeout that we drew up, wide open, and it didn't go in. Sometimes that just happens. Obviously we let our guys play. I want them to be aggressive, but at the same time I just thought we just got a little bit over anxious, and we've got to learn from that moving forward because obviously as you move into the schedule we're getting ready to play you're gonna continue to play several games like the one we played Saturday night so we've got to learn from that."
What do you think of this game up at the United Center....
JG: "I like it. I love going up there. Obviously it's our largest alumni base. We're excited to go to Chicago. It's a huge area for us, not only from alumni - from a recruiting standpoint, we're really excited to have an opportunity to play up there, and I know our guys are looking forward to it."
When you sit down with (athletic director) Mike Thomas are there certain games or opponents you like to schedule?
JG: "Well we want to keep doing (the United Center game) for sure. A lot like the Missouri game, I think two games that really make a lot of sense to us. In a perfect world, some years, I wish we could get more games there and obviously you're saying, ''well coach you're being selfish' (laughter). But the reality of that is it's not been overly realistic to get that done, and we'll continue to work in that regard. That'll be the perfect world. I don't know if thats gonna happen, but we're going to do everything we can to continue the game. We've got a great relationship with the United Center. Obviously Chicago is important to us. We have a great relationship with the Bulls. You know, it makes a lot of sense to continue to do it."
Tell us a little about Auburn, what can we expect?
JG: "Well the biggest thing that concerns me is their rebounding. They've got 40 percent or more back on the glass for five consecutive games. I think it's one of the things - maybe the best thing - that they've got. And you know, you can say well I can see where you'd be concerned because we got hammered on the backboard on Saturday night. We've got to compete better on the glass than what we did on Saturday. A large part of that is not as simple as just blocking out. I think a big reason why they got us on the glass on Saturday was because Phil Pressey was inside our defense creating rotations, and when you create rotations it's hard to block out, so obviously keeping the ball out of the paint helps in being able to rebound the basketball better. Their two guards, Denson and Sullivan are really good off the dribble. They're gonna challenge us as well in terms of getting into the paint. We gotta try to keep them out of the paint, but rebounding is really where that thing starts, and we gotta make a ton of strides in that area."
Nnanna Egwu had a good game Saturday. Any reaction to how he played on the boards?
JG: "I think Egwu did a great job. He keeps getting better every day. I thought it was the best game that he's played, and it was great to have him out there 35 minutes and not having to deal with foul trouble, especially in a game like that where he was going against size. You take a look at that progress from the Gonzaga game where he got in foul trouble going against a similar type of front line, and now you go against Missouri's front line. He's just made a ton of growth and improvement. He's got a lot of confidence right now, which he should. He's worked really hard, and I think he's starting to experience some of the fruits of his labor. I thought he competed well on the backboard. He was a guy that was rotating a lot to try to help on Pressey, and when you get us in rotation, and get any team in rotation, it's easier to get offensive rebounds. But I thought all in all he played really well, and I'm excited about the direction that he's going."
Illinois plays Auburn in Chicago's United Center Saturday. The game tips at 1:15 p.m.