CHAMPAIGN — They’ve toured Pearl Harbor and taken a dip in the ocean.
They’ve felt the warm sun on their backs and wondered why Champaign can’t have palm trees.
But tonight, coach John Groce expects his Illini basketball team to be all business as it plays away from home for the first time against the University of Hawaii.
Long before tonight’s 11:30 p.m. tipoff, Groce began preparing his first Illini team for life away from Assembly Hall.
“We talk a lot about being road warriors,” he said. “That’s important.
“I have an older team, but they’re going through our routine and how we do things on the road for the first time. So it’s all new. But they adapt well and they are coachable and they want to be good.
“We had a film session and their antennas were up. They were asking questions.”
Even last week, long before Groce did the breakdown of the Hawaii team, he had the program’s nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach speak to the team about the best strategy for eating and taking in fluids to help the body adjust to a nine-hour plane ride crossing four time zones.
“They educated us on how to get our minds and bodies ready to play and I’m hoping that helps,” Groce said.
Eventually, though, it will be time to line up across from a Hawaii team squad likes to play fast, packs a balanced scoring punch and is off to a
“The biggest thing when I watch them is their tempo, how fast they are,” Groce said. “They will challenge our transition defense.”
What jumps off the film is the play of Hawaii big man Vander Joaquin, a 6-foot-10 senior from Angola who will present a new challenge for Illini big men Nnanna Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey.
Joaquin, who is being looked at by NBA scouts, averaged 14.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game last season while earning first-team all-WAC honors. He’s averaging 15.3 points and 7.0 rebounds this year.
“He was a little banged up so he has only started one of their three games, but he has played in all three,” Groce said.
“I actually saw him on film last year because we played a common opponent when I was at Ohio U., and I was interested to see his development.
“He has a chance to play this game for a long time professionally. He has a lot of tools.”
It will be a new challenge for the Illini defense because Illinois’ first two opponents were undersized and lacked a legitimate post player.
“When we were at Xavier, (Joaquin) reminds me of David West the way he operates around the basket,” Groce said.
Groce said although Hawaii has not shot a lot of 3-pointers, it has been accurate from distance.
“And their point guard averages nine assists a game, which is indicative of their tempo,” he said. “We’ll have our hands full in transition defense and in post defense.”
Making an early impact for the Illini has been sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams. He has shown an improved shooting stroke, having made 6-of-10 from 3-point range in the first two games.
“I spent the summer taking a lot of shots,” Abrams said. “I feel confident. And it’s fun. That’s how it’s supposed to be — play the game and have fun. We’re having a different level of fun this season.”
Tonight’s game will be televised only in the state of Hawai’i. It will, however, be streamed live at OCSports.tv. There is no charge for the streaming video.
After tonight’s game, Illinois island hops to Maui and will play Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Monday’s game against Southern California will also be a late show, tipping off at 11 p.m. on ESPN2.