Illinois off to hot start no one saw coming

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If Weber was the good-guy coach who slowly lost the team, Groce is the energetic newcomer who came to town to help them pick themselves up again. It isn’t just the positive approach, the players say. Groce says he’s tough on them, particularly Paul, when he needs to be.

“I was on him in the film session now. I mean, in was on him,” Groce said. “And that sends a message to the other guys _ `Whoa, like man, he’s going at him, man, everybody’s held accountable around here.’”

Paul and others say they enjoy the up-tempo style Groce preaches, too. He encourages them to push the ball up the floor, to take shots _ a bunch of them, even if they miss.

D.J. Richardson, another senior guard who is the team’s leading rebounder and a hard worker on defense, has launched 62 3s, almost eight a game. Paul is averaging almost seven 3-point attempts a game.

“I just feel like in this offense, it fits my game a lot more than the past offenses have,” Paul said. “I think everyone has the confidence to play the game.”

Even at 8-0, though, everything isn’t perfect.

Tracy Abrams, the sophomore point guard who Groce figures will run his offense, is struggling and has been on the bench when the last two games were on the line. Paul, for the most part, has had the ball in his absence with super-sub Joseph Bertrand taking Abrams’ spot in the lineup.

The Illini are also weak inside. They have been outrebounded even in two of their biggest wins, over Butler and a comeback over Hawaii. While scoring 79.5 a game, they’re getting just 26 of those in the paint.

And the schedule hasn’t included a ranked team yet. That’ll come soon, with No. 12 Gonzaga on Dec. 8, No. 16 Missouri on Dec. 22 and Big Ten play to follow. Five other conference teams are in the Top 25, including No. 1 Indiana and two others in the top five.

What happens if long jumpers stop falling, the way they did last season?

Groce says he’s working on the answer, starting with better rebounding. He says that’s at the top of a long list of things he needs to address in practice, something the Illini haven’t had enough time for with their hectic early schedule. Not many teams have played anything close to eight games so far.

And Groce says he’s not reading much into the early success or the ranking.

“What’s it mean in terms of the long-term mission that we’re on to try to be the best basketball team that we can be in February and March?” he asked. “Not a whole lot.”

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidmercerap

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