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It's time for Illini to pick up good habits

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 10:07 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps fueled by the lack of feel-good news on the football side of campus — and the fact that the Illini football team does not play this week — attention shifts to the giant spaceship that is now John Groce’s Illini basketball home.

College basketball practice began across the nation on Friday and Groce is finally able to log consecutive workouts during which he can gauge how much of his lessons are being retained from session to session.

“Now you can see if habits are taking form,” Groce said. “They say if you can do it every day for a month it becomes a habit. We were able to practice 16 times during the spring and summer and that’s nothing. You don’t develop any habits. So right now, we’ll see. I think even when we’re just two weeks into it we’ll know more.

“That’s when you’ll see if we have a connection or how far we have to go.”

It’s a combination of Groce’s intensity, enthusiasm, energy and a convincing sense that his vision won’t be denied that has created such a positive early buzz around his first Illini basketball season.

But fans should be forewarned because there’s an important distinction to make:

Don’t confuse early enthusiasm with a prediction for immediate success.

That’s not the case, although because Groce has four seniors and some talent in the program, the door is open to the possibility that there may be more success than the national media suggests is possible.

The collapse of the 2011-12 team confirmed there are ingrained shortcomings with toughness, togetherness and skills that will take more than a push of a button to correct. Groce is pushing every button he can find, but that by itself doesn’t make D.J. Richardson a better ball-handler, or Brandon Paul a better decision-maker, or Nnanna Egwu a more experienced big man.

It doesn’t instantly teach these players just how Groce intends to attack nor does it give them the knowledge to do it wisely.

Some of these lessons take time, although the challenge for Groce’s first group is to begin making the conversion quickly.

There’s a chance that much of what Groce is teaching plays to the strengths of current players, particularly Paul and Joseph Bertrand, and that they’ll excel beyond what we now expect.

And there’s a chance that in his second year, Egwu can begin to blossom in a way we could never quite see last year. Although they are very different players, we saw very little of what Meyers Leonard could be as a freshman. Then we saw all the potential in the world as a sophomore. Now we’re seeing him do it for the Portland Trailblazers.

Although it’s unfair, use Paul as an example.

Is he a talent three years into his college career who can adapt and fine-tune his own game in line with what Groce is teaching? If so, he could become a senior hero.

Or is he too set in his ways to be budged out of some old habits that will be more of a hindrance than a help?

Several times this past week Groce was asked how he has addressed the team about last season’s collapse. He was asked if he held an exorcism to drive out the demons that infected a group that lost 12 of its final 14 and watched their coach get fired.

Groce hasn’t ignored what happened, but he has barely brought it up.

“I can’t control the past,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about that. That ain’t changing. The only thing we can control is what we do moving forward and our mindset toward every day.

“We have to understand that every day counts. We have to develop a defensive mindset. We have to be mentally tougher. We have to be more together. If we can get caught up in those things, we’ll have a chance to be the best basketball team that this team can be.

“When you do that, you start playing well. When you start playing well, all of the other things that people want to talk about — like predictions — they take care of themselves.”

Groce said the mistake fans and players make is to begin with the prediction, then try to figure out a way to make it come true.

Groce said the key is to concentrate on good habits and playing well. The accuracy of the prediction will be determined by the quality of the habits.

“It works in the reverse of what most people think,” he said.

No player seems to have stepped into a better situation than Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin.

One reason he chose Illinois is because as a school with a new head coach, he has a chance to learn Groce’s lessons at the same rate as his teammates. And he’s fired up about doing it on a bigger stage.

“One of my former teammates at Coastal said, ‘You’re going from playing in gyms to playing in arenas.’ ” McLaurin said. “That’s exciting. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

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