CHAMPAIGN | John Groce wasn't too caught up in coaching his first game at Illinois, but his team took care of any concerns about getting that initial win by pulling away early in a 75-55 victory over Colgate in the season opener for both teams Friday.
"It's his first win," said Illinois guard Brandon Paul, who had 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists. "Being our new coach, it's a great thing. He's not excited about this win. We're focusing on the next game. We're looking forward to getting better."
Groce guided Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season before replacing Bruce Weber, who was fired as Illinois coach in March after losing 12 of the last 14 games. The Illini have failed to reach the NCAA tournament in three of the last five seasons.
Groce showed off a team that didn't hesitate from the 3-point line. The Illini also improved their ball-handling after turnovers became a concern in the preseason.
Tracy Abrams added 13 points and Tyler Griffey had 10 for the Illini, who hit 10 of 18 3-pointers in the first half en route to a 43-25 lead at the break.
Illinois was just 15 of 35 overall from the field in the first half but broke a tie game with a 29-11 run heading into halftime.
Groce wasn't bothered by the heavy dose of 3-point shooting in the first half.
"We've got guys who can shoot the ball," Groce said. "We've got six different guys who made 3s in the first half. We've got a lot of confidence in these guys."
The improvement, Groce said, must come from inside the 3-point line.
"We'll look at the film," Groce said. "We have to slow down and finish better."
Paul scored six points while Griffey and D.J. Richardson combined for another six during a 12-0 run that broke a 14-14 tie.
Turnovers were a concern for the Illini during two exhibition victories, but they had just four turnovers in the first half and 12 for the game against Colgate. Paul and Abrams, who share the bulk of the point-guard duties, combined for 10 assists and five turnovers.
"The biggest thing we wanted to accomplish tonight was trying to play more consistently through 40 minutes," said Groce, who showed off his high-energy act on the sideline. He was first-pumping just minutes into the game, and the Illini fed off his enthusiasm.
"He rubs off on us," Paul said.
Murphy Burnatowski scored 23 points to lead Colgate. He did his best to keep the Raiders in the game, scoring 18 points in the first half on 7 of 10 shooting.
Illinois' 19 offensive rebounds and Colgate's 17 turnovers doomed the Raiders.
"Regardless of where you are, you can't turn the ball over and can't give up second-chance points," Colgate coach Matt Langel said. "That's really the name of the game."
After Groce wouldn't disclose his starting lineup prior to the game, the starters had a familiar look from last season. Paul, Richardson, Griffey and point guard Tracy Abrams returned to the starting lineup, joined by sophomore center Nnanna Egwu.
Courtside looked a little different though in Groce's first game. The Orange Krush student cheering section wore rubber flesh-toned skull caps in honor of Groce's clean-shaven head.
The Illini also got off to a quiet start. The home crowd didn't cheer for the Illini until they reached 10 points, duplicating a tradition at Groce's alma mater, small-college Taylor University in northern Indiana.
When Illini forward Myke Henry sank a 3-pointer with 15:53 left in the first half, the crowd finally let out a cheer.