Illinois opens season against Quincy

By Sean Neumann

John Groce is hoping to have his best season at Illinois yet.

The basketball coach is heading into his third year with the Illini, having posted a 43-28 record in his first two seasons.

Illinois is one step closer to kicking off the 2014-15 campaign. Friday night the Illini will play their only exhibition game against Quincy at State Farm Center — the first opportunity for Illinois fans to get a glimpse of this season’s team.

Groce said there’s a special excitement surrounding the team heading into Friday.

“We built our roster up with talented players over the last two-to-three years,” Groce said. “It’s deeper now than it ever has been.”

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Illinois returns 11 of its 15 players this season, while bringing in two transfers (Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks) and two freshman (Leron Black, Michael Finke).

Starks comes to Illinois as the all-time leading 3-point shooter at Oregon State, while Cosby transferred from Seton Hall, where he was one of the team’s leading scorers in each of his first two seasons, shooting 38.8 percent from behind the arc.

Starks said he made more than 13,000 shots this summer in order to maintain his consistency behind the arc when he steps on the court for Illinois.

“You just continue to work on (shooting) as well as knowing what shots you’re going to get in this offense and how you’re going to get those shots,” Starks said.

Groce is hoping the two transfers can impact an Illinois team that only shot 31.7 percent from 3-point range last season.

While Cosby said he’s looking to impact the team with his shooting, he’s also hoping to be an impact emotionally in Illini veteran Tracy Abrams’ absence.

“I think everybody has to step up a little bit,” Cosby said. “Tracy was a very vocal leader and was definitely going to be a big-time leader for us.”

Throughout the preseason, Groce has continuously expressed his trust in Nnanna Egwu to fill in for Abrams’ leadership role.

“I’m now teaching other guys in certain situations,” said Egwu, who averaged 6.0 rebounds per game last year. “In other years, I was following. Now, I’m more of a leader and having people follow me.”

And now, more than ever, Groce needs leadership, with the Big Ten as powerful as ever. The conference returns a Final Four team (Wisconsin), two Elite Eight teams (Michigan, Michigan State), the NIT Tournament champion (Minnesota), and three NCAA Tournament qualifiers (Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska).

“We’re at an era right now where the coaching top-to-bottom, the players top-to-bottom, all the things that contribute to our league make our league very strong,” Groce said. “It makes it challenging.”

Friday night’s game against Quincy will give Groce one of his first in-game looks at his team this season, one he’s expecting to be better than the last  — an attitude the coach seems to carry no matter what happened the year before.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.