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Illinois basketball’s hot start shifts to Hawaii

Updated: December 19, 2012 1:02PM

Given his lack of locks, it would be inaccurate to call John Groce fair-haired. But he’s certainly fair-skinned, which is one reason he’s leaving the pool-sitting to his wife on Illinois’ four-game trip to Hawaii.

‘‘I’m usually operating with SPF 75 or higher,’’ the first-year Illinois coach said. ‘‘I get crushed by the rays, so I’m taking it in small doses. And we have bigger fish to fry right now, to be honest.’’

The cookout begins Friday night (11:30 p.m., streaming on, when the Illini take on Hawaii, which is expected to be a middling team in the Big West. The Warriors are led by accomplished 6-10 senior Vander Joaquim, but seem to be unimposing elsewhere.

Exactly what Groce’s first Illini team will serve up remains to be seen. But orange-and-blue insight will start flowing more freely when Illinois takes on USC on Monday (11 p.m., ESPN2) in its Maui Invitational opener.

Groce keeps talking about how the Illini won’t find out where they’re at until they get ‘‘popped in the mouth.’’

But in its first steps, Illinois seems to be refreshed by the coaching change that saw Groce replace Bruce Weber.

‘‘We want to be fully present in every moment that we’re here,’’ Groce said by telephone from Honolulu. ‘‘We went to Pearl Harbor. It was unbelievable. It really put some things in perspective for our guys. I want them to be fully present in that moment. And we need to be fully present when we’re in practice mode.’’

Groce liked the way the Illini took charge in their 89-64 cruise past St. Francis in Champaign on Monday, undistracted by thoughts of Waikiki Beach and the gentle breeze in Lahaina, Maui.

‘‘One of the things that’s made me very optimistic is the way we played Monday night with the Hawaii trip looming,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Those guys weren’t thinking about Hawaii.’’

Groce, who’s making his first trip to Hawaii, inherited this schedule from Weber, including the Warrior game, which gives the Illini a chance to adjust to island time, which is four hours earlier than their Champaign clocks, before their late Maui tipoffs.

‘‘We’re just playing the cards we’re dealt,’’ Groce said. ‘‘The schedule was already done before I took the job. But I’m hoping it helps us heading into next week’s tournament that we’ve been out here for a few days.’’

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