Illini pleased with freshmen’s effort, hope to see same against UIC

By Shannon Ryan

Since his first day on the job, Illinois coach John Groce has preached the motto of toughness and togetherness.

That those qualities are already evident in his roster full of freshmen is a surprise. As the Big Ten schedule approaches Tuesday against Indiana, Groce hopes to see that consistent approach continue in the final nonconference game Saturday against Illinois-Chicago at the United Center.

The details of execution will follow, he said.

“If I was someone watching our team play, I’d say, ‘Man, I like watching those guys play because they play hard,’ ” he said. “Until we get some of these execution things on par with the toughness, it could be a recipe for bad news. The next step for us is executing the little things better.”

The Illini (10-2), coming off a victory against then-No. 23 Missouri, will need more from their freshmen to keep momentum rolling, Groce said.

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“I don’t know if any of them are hitting the wall,” he said, noting that does not usually happen until the conference season. “We need a couple of them to play better than they’re playing right now. We need all of them.”

Groce singled out Kendrick Nunn, who has been growing into a solid defensive player.

“We’ve really challenged him to make an effort to take care of the basketball,” Groce said. “He defended really well (against Missouri point guard Jordan Clarkson). I’m excited about his growth and development.”

He’ll be needed to help defend Flames guard Kelsey Barlow, a senior who transferred from Purdue. Barlow averages 16.6 points and 4.5 assists and has scored 20 or more four times this season.

“He’s really talented,” Groce said. “I watched a lot of clips on Barlow over the holidays. He’s got a hand in not only scoring, but a hand in almost every play in making those guys better.”

Groce said he’s pleased with the effort of his young roster.

“I shouldn’t say it surprised me because we beat that drum every day,” he said. “Our consistency in the area of toughness and togetherness has been exceptional. It’s a big reason we’ve been competitive.”