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Lofty rating goes on display for Illini

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 10:10 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHAMPAIGN — Rest and rise.

That was the formula this past week for the University of Illinois basketball team.

Illinois received a six-day rest following its last victory and on Monday was rewarded by rising nine spots in the national rankings.

The unbeaten Illini climbed to No. 13 in the Associated Press poll after moving to 8-0 following its 75-62 victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini will try to make it 9-0 tonight while playing host to Western Carolina before this weekend's trip to Spokane, Wash., where the opponent will be unbeaten and 10th-ranked Gonzaga.

On Monday, Illini coach John Groce didn't look ahead to Gonzaga, but instead talked about what he hopes his team accomplished during a period when hard practices and academics took center stage.

Groce said the team focused on catching up in the classroom last Thursday and Friday, then had two rigorous and productive practices on Saturday and Sunday. He anticipated "tapering off" Monday, "to allow them to "get their bodies and minds right" for tonight's game.

"On Saturday and Sunday, we practiced hard," Groce said. "They did a good job. They practiced really well."

Groce said players who have not performed as well responded in a positive way during the recent practice sessions.

"I think they look forward to the chance to get better," he said. "We have to get Tracy Abrams playing better and we need to get Myke Henry more locked in

"Nnanna (Egwu) was better (against Georgia Tech) than he had been before and I thought (Devin) Langford has made some progress. He has practiced well."

Groce said sophomores Abrams and Egwu, the starting point guard and center, each have different challenges.

"Tracy cares a great deal," Groce said. "Sometimes he's his harshest critic. He wants to play perfect and there is no such thing. Basketball is not a game of perfect.

"He has to let go of bad plays and learn from them. Just get to the next play. Make simple plays and don't predetermine reads. Take what the defense gives based on what he sees.

"He has shown flashes of doing that but in some instances he tries to make the home run play or the pin-point pass. He just has to let it come to him."

Groce said the challenge for Egwu, who didn't play organized basketball until the eighth grade, is simply to keep making progress.

"He needs to slow down on offense," Groce said. "He's anxious sometimes. He has to understand what speed to play at. He plays too fast sometimes.

"We want him to continue to get physically stronger. He can score over either shoulder, so strength is going to be a big thing for him moving forward.

"But he just needs to play. With the (individual) skill workouts, he's as good as the best of them. But that's different than having nine other bodies out there. He's just got to play a lot."

Western Carolina is coached by Larry Hunter, who has more than 600 wins and is in his 32nd year as a head coach.

Hunter was head coach at Ohio University from 1989-2001 and Groce was head coach there from 2009-2012.

Current Illini assistant coach Dustin Ford played for Hunter at Ohio and Ford prepared the scouting report for tonight's game.

"They will be a tough, blue collar team that executes very well on offense," Groce said.

"Their guard (Trey Sumler) does a great job making plays. And their big kid (6-foot-8, 245-pound Tawaski King) is a load down there."

Western Carolina was picked to finish second in the Southern Conference. The Catamounts lost to Davidson in last season's conference championship game, missing a berth to the NCAA Tournament.

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