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Unbeaten, buzzer-beatin’ Illini basketball ready to face USC

Illinois' Joseph Bertr(2) battles St. Francis' Jalen Cann(5) during first half an NCAA college basketball game Assembly Hall Champaign Ill.

Illinois' Joseph Bertrand (2) battles St. Francis' Jalen Cannon (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill., Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. Illinois won 89-64. (AP Photo/John Dixon)

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Updated: December 20, 2012 6:31AM

It’s time to find out.

Nobody really knows what the future holds for John Groce’s first Illinois team. But the Illini will start learning more when they take on USC, coached by former Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neill, in the Maui Invitational on Monday
(11 p.m., ESPN2, 560-AM).

‘‘Our system is relatively new to these guys,’’ Groce said Sunday. ‘‘We’re an older team, so that allows them to pick up things more quickly. At the same time, everything’s new. When you play in a tournament like this, you can get exposed in certain areas where your system is not rock-solid yet. That’s going to be good for our team moving forward.’’

Illinois (3-0) already has a positive learning experience under its belt on this trip. It beat Hawaii 78-77 in overtime Friday on D.J. Richardson’s three-pointer at the buzzer.

The Illini, who trailed 44-28 early in the second half, were led by Brandon Paul (25 points), Tracy Abrams (22) and Richardson (16).

Abrams drove the lane on the last play, dishing to Richardson in the left corner when Paul was locked down by Hawaii on the right side.

‘‘Tracy did a great job with that,’’ said Richardson, who scored all of his points after halftime. ‘‘Coach has been working on me, telling me if I miss to keep shooting. I stayed aggressive with it. It was a tough comeback in front of a tough crowd. We played together; we just had that road warrior in us.’’

Like Illinois, USC (2-0) is projected as a middle-of-the-pack team headed for the NIT. O’Neill has bolstered a thin roster with four transfers and is welcoming back three starters who had season-ending injuries.

‘‘We have a team that’s full of rejects, starting at the top with myself,’’ joked O’Neill, who’s likely to take advantage of his depth. ‘‘We have a bunch of guys that transferred. It’s a fun group.’’

The Illinois-USC winner is expected to play Texas on Tuesday, with the loser facing Chaminade.

No. 11 North Carolina, Marquette, Butler and Mississippi State are on the other side of the bracket.

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