Winter will ask: Illinois’ struggling conference consistency

Illinois%27+head+coach+John+Groce+signals+to+his+team+during+the+game+against+Indiana+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Jan.+18%2C+2015.+The+Illini+lost+80-74.
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Winter will ask: Illinois’ struggling conference consistency

Illinois' head coach John Groce signals to his team during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

Illinois' head coach John Groce signals to his team during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

Illinois' head coach John Groce signals to his team during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

Illinois' head coach John Groce signals to his team during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Jan. 18, 2015. The Illini lost 80-74.

By Sean Neumann

Bringing his players out to his family swimming pool on a summer day, John Groce knew one of the Illinois basketball team’s biggest problems was its consistency.

The Illini head coach experienced a lack of it in his two previous years in Champaign, falling flat in conference play both years after a pair of strong starts. It was an issue the Illini were working to avoid since dipping their feet in the water.

“I made them take their shoes off and put all 10 toes in the water,” Groce remembered. “I said, ‘I’m not interested in seven or eight or nine digits. I want all 10 of them in the water.’”

Groce’s message was simple: His Illini players should know exactly what’s expected of them on and off the court.

And with 11 of 15 players returning to the team this season, Groce’s expectations are higher than ever for the Illini — especially when it comes to closing out the season.

Illinois has gone 15-21 in Big Ten play under Groce, failing to make the NCAA Tournament last year after a 1-10 stretch in conference play sank the team. And Illinois was far from pleased in settling for a second-round NIT Tournament exit.

“You’re certainly grateful for the opportunity to be in postseason play last year, but all of us would have rather been in the other postseason tournament,” Groce said. “When you miss that by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin, you feel that.”

The Illini went 24-3 in nonconference play during Groce’s first two seasons, but still managed to lose 28 games in those seasons as a result of a losing record in Big Ten play — what Groce hopes to avoid this year as conference play picks up.

“There comes a time when winter will ask, ‘What did you do last summer?’?” Groce said.

Winter won’t ask the Illini players how many toes they put into the Groce family pool that summer day, but to Groce, it will remember the effort they put in during practice.

Groce’s wake-and-grind mentality is hoped to have bled over into his Illinois players, with the program trying to end the season with a winning conference record for the first time in since 2010-11. Ahmad Starks reflected his coach’s workhorse personality and said he made more than 13,000 shots this summer, preparing for the 2014-15 season.

But Illinois already had its share of ups and downs early on in Big Ten play.

Just a few days after starting the conference schedule 0-2 with a heartbreaking overtime loss to a struggling Michigan team and another first-half lead slipping away at No. 20 Ohio State, Illinois bounced back with a 64-57 upset over No. 11 Maryland. Most impressively, the Illini did so without leading scorer Rayvonte Rice, who is sidelined with a broken hand.

Rice said it’s important to stress the “10 Toes In” motto to make sure each player is reminded of the level of competitiveness to come with every day. And in the leading scorer’s absence, it’s important for Illinois’ depth to come into play, already sitting on a 2-4 conference record with 12 games remaining.

While Groce, who’s in an all-important third year as the team’s head coach, tries to push the Illini into the NCAA Tournament after missing the dance last season, his players’ consistency remains the key to their success.

The record-breaking offense Illini fans saw at the beginning of the season has hid away behind a 38.2 field goal percentage, which is elevated after averaging 96.2 points per game following the first five tune-up games against nonconference opponents.

Starks has experienced one of the biggest offensive drop-offs for Illinois, starting the season with three straight double-digit efforts and then not reaching that mark until a 13-point performance against Missouri on Dec. 20 and then struggling for nearly another month later until a 10-point game against Northwestern.

“We understand the point behind (‘10 Toes In’),” Starks said. “We have to be in from the start of the season all the way through the end. No matter what you do, there’s going to be ups and downs, so we have to be all in from start to finish.”

And with all the ups and downs Illinois has experienced already this season — losing captain Tracy Abrams, Rice’s broken hand, a Las Vegas Invitational Tournament title, a buzzer-beater victory over rival Missouri — the Illini are looking to build on the good and forget the bad.

“My mindset is very much about growth,” Groce said. “Our goal was always to play our best late in the year. We want to be better than we were yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow.”

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