Groce enters 2nd season at helm of Illinois basketball

The year was 1997. Second-year head coach Lon Kruger had started 22-10 in his first season. He had a team of five seniors, three of whom were returning starters. The experienced lineup led the Illini to their first Big Ten Championship in 14 seasons.

The year was 2001. Second-year head coach Bill Self was a win away from the Final Four the previous season. He had already won a Big Ten championship and owned a roster with four future NBA players. Illinois would win a second consecutive Big Ten championship for the first time since 1952.

The year was 2004. Second-year head coach Bruce Weber had brought the Illini their first outright Big Ten championship since 1963 behind future NBA All-Star Deron Williams. Illinois came into the season No. 6, and it wasn’t long before it ascended to No. 1. The Illini would stay there for most of the season, en route to a Big Ten championship and a NCAA runner-up finish.

The year is 2013. Second-year head coach John Groce resurrected a program that had won one NCAA tournament game in six seasons and took it back to the third round of the NCAA tournament, almost reaching the Sweet 16. He returns just three contributors from last season and has nine new players this season. But Groce doesn’t appear to be in a position to repeat the feat accomplished by his three most recent predecessors.

He hit the reset button just one season after taking over the program. The Illini return three scholarship players — senior Joseph Bertrand and juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu — and one walk-on, Mike LaTulip. Everyone else that Weber left for Groce has either transferred or graduated.

Groce brought in a full starting lineup of freshmen, in addition to four transfers this offseason. He had already added Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake before his first season began.

Groce said those five returners have helped the nine new players transition in easier, making the reset move more quickly.

“Even though we were a much more experienced team, an older team and had a lot more age to us last season, when I started with that group, all of them were new,” Groce said. “We’re really relying on these five guys to teach us every day how we do things.”

Groce also expects an expanded role on the court for the players who grew up in the shadows of Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.

“It’s a different role for me this year. I’ve got to be more a leader,” Abrams said. “We’ve got nine new guys. I’ve got to step up and be that guy to help those guys out. Coach definitely knows that and he’s pushing me to do that.”

Egwu said he’s noticed the impact he and his experienced teammates have had on the new guys.

“It’s a lot of learning. We learned a lot more in the summer and the fall than we did last year,” Egwu said.

Practice started earlier this season, on Sept. 27 instead of Oct. 15. The new schedule allowed for more breaks between practices rather than a rushed practice schedule.

Groce said this helped the new players, especially the freshmen, learn the system.

“I’ve put the brakes on,” he said. “There’s so many things I’ve whacked or gotten rid of off the practice plan just because I don’t think we’re ready for that. And that’s OK.”

The freshmen have asked questions of the coaches and the players, and even experienced guys have found this helpful.

“They ask me certain questions and as I’m answering, I ask (coaches): ‘How do you do this?’ I learn, they learn. We all get better,” Egwu said.

The freshmen have added more than questions to practice.

“Youthfulness sometimes can bring excitement and energy, and you can certainly see that here in our practices early on,” Groce said. “Whether we’re able to maintain that, we’ll see.”

While Illinois’ offense has been installed slower than originally expected, it will likely be more complex than last season and less reliant on the 3-point shot.

“This year’s team will be more balanced than last year’s team when it comes to driving and shooting threes,” Groce said. “I think that balance will be good for us offensively.”

The Illini played more pick-and-roll than any team in the country last season, and Groce said he doesn’t expect that to change this year.

“I think that’s the future of basketball,” he said, noting pick-and-roll offenses are used heavily in the NBA.

The style of play has been helpful in another area of the program where Groce has found success recently: recruiting. When four-star point guard Quentin Snider committed to Illinois in September, he said the style of play was a big reason why. Egwu could see why.

“It fits everyone,” Egwu said. “Everyone plays well.”

In addition to Snider, Groce has two more commits in the class of 2014: four-star forward Leron Black and three-star forward Michael Finke. The class is currently ranked No. 12 in the nation, but it could receive a big boost if five-star forward Cliff Alexander chooses Illinois. Alexander is still considering Illinois, Kansas, Memphis and DePaul, but it is largely considered to be a two-horse race between the Illini and the Jayhawks.

While Groce can’t comment on this year’s recruiting, he said the Illini have a lot of momentum. 

Possibly, too much momentum. As it currently stands, the Illini do not have enough scholarships for all of the current players and the commits in next year’s class. If Alexander commits, the Illini will be oversigned by two, meaning two players will have to go somewhere else.

Still, it’s a good problem to have compared to having just 10 scholarship players this season, three fewer than the allowed 13.

“It is what it is,” Groce said. “We have what we have. We want to use that to our advantage with how versatile and how interchangeable guys are.”

Groce said it is the most versatile team he’s ever coached, led by Rice, who can play four positions. The freshmen can also play multiple positions, allowing Groce flexibility in how he uses them.

“No question. There’s a lot of excitement around our program for a lot of reasons, recruiting is certainly a part of it,” he said. Groce also noted that the upcoming State Farm Center renovations are beneficial to the program, but he said none of it would have been possible without the success last year’s team had.

“Our team, as much as any team I’ve coached, reached or maybe even went a little higher than their potential, which is what you want with every team,” he said. “But we’ve got high aspirations and high expectations for what it means to be a part of Illini basketball, and we have a long way to go.”

This season, the Illini were picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten — far from the Big Ten championships won by Kruger, Self and Weber. Groce said he can see why. The Illini lost most of their production, while the conference’s bottom-feeders all improved, but he said he wasn’t worried about what the media had to say. This year’s team already understands the importance of defense and rebounding, which are crucial to winning games.

Egwu said he’s already seen his teammates fight under Groce in a way that he hadn’t seen before.

“We were 2-7 in the Big Ten and it was kind of like, ‘Here we go again,’” Egwu said. We never gave up. We always knew we had a chance, even through the last game.”

He expects to see the same fight this year.

“We understand the prediction,” Egwu said. “We understand it’s their job, But we’re the ones in practice every day. We’re the ones seeing each other play. We’re the ones seeing how every player has improved throughout the last year, through the summer and the fall. We’re the ones watching that. We’re playing with each other every day. Until we play our first game and keep on playing throughout the season, no one’s going to know until then.”

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