John Groce thinks Illinois basketball will establish identity in Year 3


Illinois’ head coach John Groce praises his team during the game against Darthmouth at State Farm Center, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. The Illini won 72-65

After maximizing talent in his first two years in the helm, Illinois men’s basketball head coach John Groce expects next season’s team to take a big step forward and be more like the ones he hopes to build at Illinois.

Coaching with leftover talent from former head coach Bruce Weber, Groce led the Illini to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2012-13 and a 20-15 finish this season. In his first two years, Groce was not able to fully establish the system or identity — playing eight, nine or 10 players in a quick-paced and aggressive manner — he wanted. But Groce hopes the team will be more similar to his third and fourth years at Ohio, when he had the success that caught the eye of athletic director Mike Thomas.

Next season, every player but two — seniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu — will have been recruited by Groce. Abrams and Egwu will each be in Groce’s system for their third year.

The team, which was playing its best basketball in March, will only lose seniors Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, who both came off the bench late in the year. They will be replaced by three double-digit career scoring transfers, senior Ahmad Starks, junior Aaron Cosby and sophomore Darius Paul. 

“At times, we struggled to score,” Groce said at a news conference Tuesday.

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    Starks and Cosby have also shown they can hit 3-pointers, another area where Illinois struggled this season.

    This summer will allow the players to focus more on improving their bodies and skills and less on learning the system, which was a major forcus for the nine new players last summer. Groce said “body transformation” is the biggest theme of the offseason.

    Last offseason, Egwu gained more than 20 pounds, while Rayvonte Rice lost around 35. Paul has already added 29 pounds since coming to Illinois. Groce said he expects Paul’s body to continue to develop and that he needs to improve his conditioning. As far as the other sophomore-to-be bigs, Groce thought Maverick Morgan needs to work on developing his post skills and becoming more aggressive, while Austin Colbert needs to add more weight to be effective in the Big Ten. 

    Groce also stressed that returning players will be pushed to learn more than one position to help diversify lineups he will be able to play.

    Next season the Illini will be led by four seniors: Egwu, Abrams, Rice and Starks. Groce said each player has an area where he can improve. Egwu needs to work on his skill level and continue to develop his above-average shooting. Abrams needs to work on making his teammates better. Rice needs to improve his shooting. Groce said Starks not receiving his waiver to play the 2013-14 season may have been a blessing in disguise because Starks will be even more successful next season than he would have been this season after having a year to develop and learn the system. 

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