Groce taking over new men’s basketball team, again

In his first year at Illinois, John Groce took over an entirely new team. He had to learn about his players’ personalities, their strengths and weaknesses. He had to learn how to best coach and lead them.

One year later, he basically has to do it again.

The Illinois men’s basketball team has nine new players this season, a fact that led Groce to assign the media a research project: to find another college basketball team with as many new faces.

The Illini started practice on Sept. 27, allowing the new Illini to begin to mesh on the court.

“It’s an exciting time of year, but it’s challenging at the same time with a relatively new team,” Groce said.

Illinois returns just five players: senior Joseph Bertrand, juniors Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice, and sophomore Mike LaTulip. Only Bertrand, Egwu and Abrams played significant minutes last season, as Rice sat out after transferring from Drake and LaTulip is a walk-on.

Five of the new additions are freshman, while the other four are transfers. Of the transfers, only senior Jon Ekey will be eligible to play this season.

Even the returning players are different. Bertrand, Egwu and Abrams are all thicker and stronger. Egwu added about 20 pounds, bulking up to 250, while Bertrand looks like a new person, even changing his body type while recovering from a torn labrum.

Groce said the Illini have benefited from a new practice schedule that began two weeks earlier and allows for off-days, rather than having just two weeks of practice before the first exhibition.

“I love it so far,” Groce said. “I really like it because we have a young team, so it gives those guys a chance to recover physically, as well as mentally.”

Through the first 10 practices, Groce said the team has made a lot of progress. He has also seen some surprising trends, like the fact that the Illini are shooting a higher 3-point percentage than at the same time on last year’s 3-point-happy squad, despite having less players who are considered a perimeter threat.

Groce said the main goal this summer and fall was to help the team become closer on and off the court. In order to help build chemistry between his new players, Groce had SEAL Team PT, a physical training group ran by former Navy SEAL John Maguire, work with the Illini this summer.

The rhetoric from the SEAL workouts has brought the team a new outlook, one that the Illini will wear on their wrists this season: E1H. While the Illini worked out, the SEALs would yell questions, the answers are abbreviated on the bracelet.

“How many people does it take to win?” the SEALs would ask.

“Everybody,” the Illini responded.

“How many does it take to screw it up?”

“One.”

“What do you do when a teammate is confused?”

“Help them.”

In addition to the bracelets, Groce said he added new, tougher measures in practice because his players “need to be comfortable when things are uncomfortable,” a mindset of the SEALs.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.