By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois coach John Groce had a handful of questions about his team when it traveled to Hawaii for the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Four wins later, he has some answers.
For starters, Groce said Friday he knows his team can take a punch and fight on. Hawaii opened a 13-point halftime lead that the Illini overcame in overtime for a 78-77 win. Illinois (6-0) then won its next three to take the tournament title.
Just a few months after essentially the same group of players melted down over a miserable stretch that led to the dismissal of coach Bruce Weber, Groce believes the team has a quiet resolve.
“We’ve got seniors that have been through a lot,” Groce said of starters Brandon Paul, Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson. “They stay very poised and very even-keeled. … That’s a part of our culture.”
Illinois dropped 13 of its last 15 games last season to finish 17-15 and miss the NCAA tournament. The losses piled up with such frequency that the players and Weber seemed powerless to stop the slide.
Not many people expected much this season out of the Illini, who host Gardner-Webb (4-3) on Sunday. They were picked to finish near the back of a strong Big Ten. And Groce himself has stressed that he doesn’t yet have the players he needs to transition all the way to the fast-paced style he prefers.
But when his sharpshooters are on, the Illini can look pretty good.
Paul is averaging 19.7 points per game on 49 percent shooting, including an impressive 18 for 41 from beyond the arc. Sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams is averaging 14.3 points on 50 percent shooting, and Griffey is at 10.5 per game on 57.5 percent shooting.
And Groce isn’t buying the idea that this year’s Maui title means any less than it might have in another year because the field only included one ranked team, No. 9 North Carolina. Illinois didn’t have to face North Carolina, either, taking on Butler in the title game after the Bulldogs took care of the Tar Heels.
The Illini made relatively easy work of Butler, winning 78-61.
“Call Roy Williams and ask him if he thinks Butler’s any good,” Groce said when asked about the quality of the tournament field. “The teams we played were good. The environment we played in at Hawaii was tough. You have to be extremely mentally and physically tough to play Butler.”
Abrams, Groce said, understands the new offense in ways he didn’t just three or four weeks ago. Paul, a sometimes streaky shooter who at his best can carry a team, is on and playing aggressive. And sophomore center Nnanna Egwu showed signs he might be able to offer Illinois the inside defensive presence it will need in the Big Ten.
The Illini are doing some other things right that they struggled with in recent seasons, including making 75 percent of their foul shots.
But Groce sounds wary of reading too much into a handful of early wins.
“Is that the end-all, be-all? Absolutely not,” he said. “We still have work to do — we’ve got to rebound better, we’ve got to foul less.”
Illinois was outrebounded in two of its wins on the Hawaii trip — 37-31 in the Butler game and an eye-opening 51-31 against Hawaii. And the Illini committed 26 fouls against the Rainbow Warriors, sending them to the line 31 times. If Hawaii had managed to hit just a couple more free throws than the 17 it made, it would have won.
“By no means,” Groce said, “have we arrived.”