In the midst of a three-game losing streak, the University of Illinois basketball players have been asked by their coach to demonstrate more leadership and accountability.
So John Groce applauded the team’s decision to hold a players-only meeting in the days leading up to tonight’s game with Nebraska.
Before boarding a flight to Lincoln, Neb., on Monday, Groce said he viewed it as a good sign that captains D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Sam McLaurin and Tracy Abrams had called the team together to talk behind closed doors about their recent struggles.
“It’s their meeting, it’s their team,” Groce said after practice in Champaign on Monday. “Obviously they care. They’ve cared for a long time. That doesn’t change just because we’ve lost some games.
“For the seniors, their deal is winding down. They want to get the most out of it. It’s really good that they’re taking responsibility. The fact that they’ve gotten together to hold each other more accountable, that’s a great sign.”
Groce said the team’s fortunes will begin to change once their play improves. Execution — not effort — is the key, he said.
“Their effort level has been good,” he said. “We don’t have an effort issue on our team. Guys play pretty hard. There are times when I wish we’d come out more aggressive, but we’ve played 19 games and there were probably a couple when I thought we needed more competitive toughness, but that’s about it.
“We have good chemistry. Guys are playing for the right reasons. Guys want to get better.
“Our deal is strictly execution right now. We have to defend the 3-point line better, rebound consistently and get better quality possessions on offense. We have to screen better and move the ball better.
“All of those details matter, especially if you are not flame throwing in 15 3s a game. Then it really gets amplified, especially in conference play when scouting gets cranked up. You have to find a way to execute those little details and guys are finding that out and are starting to hold themselves more accountable. I’ve felt it over the last few days.”
That doesn’t guarantee a victory, Groce said, but he does expect to see improved play against the Huskers.
“It’s important to play well,” he said. “We need to come out aggressive and play well. The other stuff takes care of itself. But I anticipate us playing better than we did the last couple of games.”
Nebraska seems to have fought through some tough times, marked by a five-game losing streak that ended Saturday. Some of those problems were brought on by an injury to 6-foot-10 senior Brandon Ubel.
“Their team starts with the guards, Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos,” Groce said. “They can both put up big numbers. Ubel is back after sitting out two weeks with a fractured elbow, but they were very competitive in the other (conference) games.
“They play really hard and they defend. With Ubel out, (David) Rivers and (Shavon) Shields have increased their roles.”
In a 66-56 loss at Michigan State, Rivers made all eight of his shots and led Nebraska with 18 points.
Saturday at Penn State, Shields made 10 of 11 shots and all eight of his free throws to finish with a career-high 29 points. Shields, who is the son of 12-time NFL Pro Bowl lineman Will Shields of the Kansas City Chiefs, is a 6-6 guard who on Monday was named Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week.
“I think they feel pretty good about the way they fought through that stretch when Ubel was out,” Groce said. “I’m sure they have a lot of confidence.”
Groce said he anticipates once again starting Sam McLaurin at power forward and bringing senior Tyler Griffey in off the bench.
“I thought Tyler played really well coming off the bench last game,” he said.