CHAMPAIGN — For the first time in a 21-year coaching career, John Groce feels like a father who has adopted an entire houseful.
In past years, he has known his brood, easing two or three new faces into the family at a time.
But this season — his second as patriarch of the University of Illinois men’s basketball family — he has opened his arms, flung open the front door and welcomed nine new players into the fold.
For Groce — who believes the influx of true freshmen and transfers may be unprecedented — it’s a complicated makeover necessitated by the graduation of four players and three others who transferred from his first Illini team. That was a group that took a roller coaster ride in 2012-13 that included a 12-0 start, a 2-7 stumble to begin Big Ten play, and an inspiring recovery that carried the team to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois finished 23-13, bowing out with a stirring
63-59 loss to No. 2 seed Miami.
After Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin graduated, and once Myke Henry, Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde decided to transfer, Groce was left with just three returning players.
Center Nnanna Egwu, guard Tracy Abrams and wing Joe Bertrand are the only returnees, although one transfer — Rayvonte Rice — was in the program last year but had to sit out after arriving from Drake.
To fill out the rest of the roster, Groce recruited a five-player freshman class that included Chicago Simeon teammates Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, Belleville’s Malcolm Hill, Ohio big man Maverick Morgan and New Jersey forward Austin Colbert.
That still left openings, and Groce was approached by four more current collegians looking for new homes.
Just one of those will play this season, and that’s forward Jon Ekey, a fifth-year senior who moves in from Illinois State.
The other three — Ahmad Starks of Oregon State, Aaron Cosby from Seton Hall and Darius Paul from Western Michigan — will wait until the 2013-14 season to make their Illini debuts, sitting this year because of NCAA transfer rules.
Groce always believes a key component to forming any great team is to
closely know players on and off the court. So he wasted no time, listing that as the No. 1 offseason goal for his coaching staff.
The process included two rounds of Navy SEALs training that stressed communication, trust and team-building. It included countless one-on-one sessions during which coaches listened as players talked about their families, their fears, their interestaway from the game.
“Getting to know them takes time,” Groce said. “But it’s one of the most important things we do. I wish there was a formula where you could speed-ball it. Coaches aren’t the most patient guys in the world, so we’ve tried to be
“We’ve gotten to know them and they’ve gotten to know us, but it’s an ever-evolving curve and we continue to do that on a daily basis.”
Once practice arrived, the emphasis shifted to getting to basketball, and heading into Friday night’s opener against Alabama State, Groce feels he’s getting a pretty good handle on who can do what and who can do it best.
“We have to play to our strengths, and we’ll be different this year than last year,” he said. “Last year we were in the top five in the country for 3-pointers attempted. This year’s team will be more balanced, and I’m looking forward to having more balance.”
Bertrand, who with Ekey is one of two seniors, sees an Illini team with a changing personality.
“We’re definitely going to run, and we want to be tough on defense,” he said. “We still have shooters, but I look for us to do more driving into the lanes trying to pick up fouls.
“I think we’ll be a drive-first team and work the ball inside instead of relying on so many 3s.”
The real challenge is for Groce to blend in his freshmen.
“Just because we’re young, we don’t have any excuse,” he said. “The expectations are the same. They want to get back to the (NCAA) Tournament, but we have a long way to go to reach that point.
“Guys have to learn quickly. What we’ve asked of the freshmen is to get a little
better every day. There’s no question they want to get there.”