Of course John Groce hopes to win three games at the EA Sports Maui Invitational that opens today in Hawaii.
But nearly as much as winning, the University of Illinois head coach wants to learn. After winning an overtime thriller Friday on a last-second shot against the University of Hawaii, Groce wants to learn more about what his team is capable of.
He wants to learn if his big men can do a better job keeping pace with his guards.
And he even wants to learn about weaknesses that have yet to be revealed.
On Sunday, Groce sounded ready for whatever comes his way as the Illini prepare to play Southern California in another late game tonight.
Illinois-USC is the final game of the four scheduled at the Lahaina Civic Center and tipoff is scheduled for 11 p.m. (Central).
In earlier games (all times Central), it’s Butler vs. Marquette at 2:30 p.m., Mississippi State vs. North Carolina at 5 and Texas vs. Chaminade at 8:30.
Groce was pleased to learn that his team could fight through adversity, which is did in coming from 16 points down to nip Hawaii.
“We’re going to learn a lot in the next three days,” Groce said. “We’re looking forward to that. This really gives us an opportunity to earmark our team and see where we are early in this season.
“The Hawaii game shows our guys that you have to play 40 minutes, and I thought we showed great resolve. You have to deal with both adversity and success. The fact that we got down a couple of times and came back, we really hung in there.”
Illinois beat Hawaii 78-77 thanks primarily to the strong play of guards Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams and D.J. Richardson. Paul scored 25 points, Abrams 22 and Richardson 16, including the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.
“We’re learning about our team, and that’s the first game when we’ve had all three of them hitting on all cylinders,” Groce said. “We’re going to need production from our (big men) moving forward, but those three guards were terrific, especially on the offensive end.”
On Sunday, Groce was still being asked to talk about the game-winning play, which he diagrammed and which worked almost to perfection.
With 7.5 seconds to play and down by two points, Abrams brought the ball up court, penetrated into the lane and passed to Richardson in the corner for the winning shot.
“It was the way we diagrammed it except for the skip pass,” Groce said, pointing out that Abrams had a slightly off-target bounce pass that Richardson made a nice play on.
“It hit the ground like a rock that had skipped on the ocean and D.J. dug it out. Tracy has to read that play, and he read it well. And fortunately for us, D.J. made it.”
Groce said he anticipates having to deal with more adversity in the next three days.
“When you play in a tournament like this you can get exposed in certain areas, and you find out where your system is not rock solid yet,” he said. “That will be good for our team going forward.”
Southern California is rebounding from NCAA sanctions pertaining to the recruitment of O.J. Mayo. The program is trying to rebound under the coaching of former Northwestern head coach Kevin O’Neill. After struggling to get players and build depth, this could be the season that Southern California breaks through.
“We’re excited about our team,” O’Neill said. “As I’ve said many times, we’re a team that is full of rejects starting at the top, with myself.
“After the sanctions, we relied on junior college players and transfers. But I like this team. I think we’re going to be pretty good when all is said and done.”
Southern California is off to a 2-0 start and has both depth and size. Dewayne Dedmon, a 7-foot, 255-pounder, starts in the middle and O’Neill can bring 7-2, 270-pound Omar Oraky from Cairo, Egypt, off the bench.