CHAMPAIGN - As he walked to the huddle with his team leading 44-25, Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams raised his arms in a Y-shape above his head, flashed a toothy smile and nodded his head in approval at his approaching teammates.
These were the moments had envisioned when he committed to Illinois four years ago. After an emotionally frustrating freshman season in which his team missed the NCAA Tournament and saw its coach fired, Abrams was going to enjoy this one.
"I mean, it's fun. It's a fun game," said Abrams, who had 15 points and four assists in the Illini's 89-64 rout of St. Francis (N.Y.) on Monday. "I mean that's what it's for. We're supposed to come out, compete and have fun. I think it's a different level of having fun this year. …You just got to enjoy it one step at a time."
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The 26,223 who have seen the Illini (2-0) play at Assembly Hall during its first two games - and those who were able to stream the non-televised games online - have seen a different incarnation of this roster. It's a roster that features just two new players from last year, both role players: 6-foot-9 fifth-year transfer Sam McLaurin and skinny 6-foot walk-on guard Mike LaTulip. It's a roster that still has flaws - ball-handling, interior defense and streaky shooters - which will be tested against superior opponents.
But under first-year coach John Groce, what was a roster of tentative second-guessers last year under Bruce Weber has undergone a serious mental makeover.
On Monday, the Illini were challenged by a feisty, aggressive Terriers squad. Unlike some of last year's nonconference adventures against inferior opponents, however, the Illini didn't let the smaller dog nip at them for long. When Illinois smelled blood, they went for the kill, stomping on the Terriers during a 28-4 run to put the game away with more than 16 minutes remaining.
There was Groce the entire time, clapping for his players, stomping the floor out of anger, smacking the scorer's table out of frustration and fist-pumping while jumping in the air after his team forced a shot-clock violation.
Groce exudes confidence. He commands the room during press conference, even when the microphone speakers aren't on. Ask him a question about point guards and he'll give you an intricate, two-minute explanation of what he asks out of the position. He's a man with a well-articulated, well-organized plan for every day of work. He's confident in it - and it appears to have rubbed off on his players.
"Confidence is something that is earned," Groce said. "I wish I could wave a magic wand over a guy's head and say, 'You're confident!' I think what happens because of how hard they worked, what they've put into this thing starting last spring, this summer, this fall; the fact that they're collective buy into the unselfishness and effort piece on a daily basis I think is growing. They're starting to understand that that allows you to be more consistent."
Evidence A is senior Tyler Griffey, who scored 17 points (just one point shy of a career high) on 7 of 10 shooting. Through two games, Griffey is 11 of 16 shooting (68.8 percent), including 5 of 7 from three (71.4 percent). The previous two seasons, Griffey shot 40.8 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three. Two games isn't a reasonable sample size to draw any major conclusions from. But he finally looks like the great shooter Weber had made him out to be because he's actually shooting - and not hesitating - when he receives an open look.
When told in the press conference that he looks better on the court, Griffey quickly replied: "I feel so much better. It feels good to be out there."
Griffey played under Weber's staff for three seasons, but he may have been rejuvenated most by the coaching change. He raves about the skill workouts with assistant coach Dustin Ford. The work is starting to show dividends as Griffey hit multiple dribble and pull-up mid-range shots along with the sweet three-point stroke.
"Coach Ford with our skill workouts we're getting a lot of shots up, a lot of pull ups (jumpers). Guys have been running me off the line, so it's there. It's been open, so I'm going to keep utilizing that.
"(Confidence) just comes from practice. Practicing and getting in the gym by myself. I just get shots up. I'm feeling confident. The ball's coming off well, so I'm just going to keep shooting it."
Abrams also is more assertive, looking to score from the get-go on Monday. After connecting on a career-high three 3-pointers against Colgate, Abrams drained two threes within the first 1:25 of Monday's win. The sophomore captain is showing he is more than a hustle-y glue player. His talents are starting to emerge, and if he can continue to hit the outside shot consistently, his ceiling may continue to rise.
"I mean, I worked (on shooting) all summer," Abrams said. "I feel pretty confident about it. Coach says if you're open and it's a good opportunity, then shoot it."
The Illini have hit 24 threes in two games. Their season high last season was 11 threes. No one has been afraid to chuck it. Sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu hit a few long jumpers. D.J. Richardson hasn't hit many threes (5), but he's not afraid to take them (17 attempts). Brandon Paul has shown a more intelligent shot selection (12 of 26 shooting) while getting teammates more involved (11 assists) and simultaneously cutting down on miscues (four turnovers). Joseph Bertrand has fit well into the role of aggressive scorer and rebounder off the bench, and Myke Henry looks more assertive on defense and on the glass (5.0 rebounds per game) while keeping his always-look-to-score mentality.
Don't punch those NCAA tickets yet. The Illini have beaten two low-major teams that combined for 23 wins last season. But unlike last season, Illinois beat them like a Big Ten should (+22.5 scoring margin).
As Groce said during Monday's post-game, the Illini have not yet been "punched in the mouth" by an opponent yet. It'll come, likely in next week's Maui Invitational with the likes of USC, Texas, Butler, North Carolina and Marquette in the field.
Illinois may lose some of those fights. But after two games, Illinois looks like a team that can take a punch and still have enough gumption to swing back.
"I think (the confidence level) is probably pretty high right now, but we'll see," Groce said. "We're going to learn a lot. We're going to play some great competition here on this trip. We're going to learn a lot about our team. That's what you want. You want to continue to learn, continue to grow. Our goal every year is to play our best basketball at the end of the year. How do you do that? You do that by approaching every day, grinding it out and just trying to get a little bit better every day."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU