CHAMPAIGN – NCAA basketball officially gets underway Friday, when teams can begin practice for the upcoming season.
This is an exciting time for all, but perhaps even more so for John Groce, who is readying for his first season at Illinois after four years in charge at Ohio.
“I think the guys buy-in collectively, in terms of their attitude and effort, has been off the charts,” Groce said. “I’ve been saying that now for some time. That hasn’t changed, and it makes you as a coach very excited to work with this group.”
There are many factors adding to Groce’s level of excitement. The Illini return four starters from 2011, including leading scorer Brandon Paul and team MVP Tracy Abrams. Six of the eight players who logged the majority of the team’s minutes a year ago are back, returning 70.7 percent of its points, 69.3 percent of its rebounding and over 72 percent of minutes played.
“The guys have done a great job all spring, all summer, all fall of preparing,” Groce said. “I told them (Tuesday) that they’ve prepared themselves to practice well. They have.”
Thrilled about the positives, Groce is sure to face challenges too. He’s initiating his own program, his own routines. For the players, learning completely different offensive and defensive systems will be demanding enough, but everything is different, from the practice schedule to media policies and everything in between.
It’s going to take time.
“I looked (Wednesday) and the staff reminded me to be patient,” Groce said. “We’ve had 16 team workouts per NCAA rules since the spring that we’ve been allowed to do, which averages out to about four a month. So it’s hard to establish habits and routines that you want, both offensively and defensively, when you’re working out as few a times as we are right now. But you know us coaches we’re impatient. My wife reminds me of that all the time.”
Groce will lean on four seniors to help ease the transition, a group consisting of guards Paul, D.J. Richardson and posts Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin.
“Coach gave us the responsibility this summer to make everyone feel comfortable,” Richardson said. “I think we did a good job of that, leading the players and everyone on the team is coachable. We want to have leadership from the inside instead of from the coaches. That’s something we’re still working on.”
Groce and his staff certainly will implement a much different style of play than previously seen at Illinois in the past. Coaches and players discussed the changes Wednesday during a media session following the team photo.
1) Fast-paced tempo. Mike D’Antoni is the first name Groce mentions when asked about his offensive influences. That means up-tempo to the extreme, pushing the ball and increased possessions.
“I have a real conviction that we want to attack, we want to be aggressive, we want the ball in the paint, we want to play with great pace and speed, we want to wear you out with a 94-foot game,” Groce said. “That’s me. That’s who I am, and that’s why we play that way. That’s what we’ve taught.”
Will the Illini be able to play as fast as Groce prefers this season? In other words, is the current roster prepared to handle such a demanding style?
“I’m not sure yet,” he answered. “I’m not sure yet because although we certainly want to play fast long term, we don’t want to try to ram a square peg into a round hole. That’s not fair to the four seniors that are here. Our job as a staff is to try to find that balance between putting in that system full fledge and also giving this year’s particular team a chance to be competitive. That’s the balance that we’re trying to find right now heading into Friday night.”
2) Ball-screen oriented offensive system. There won’t be as many down-screens and back-cut action, but the new offense is predicated on ball screens and endless reads and plays off those picks. Guards will be required to go hard through those screens and post players will have the option to dive to the basket or pop out for mid- or long-range jumpers.
“A lot of ball screens, spacing. That’s mainly the pretty big difference,” Abrams said. “How we emphasize ball screens and spacing.”
Added Richardson: “We just stay wide and coming off ball screens. It lets you create. It’s not packed in, so we’re able to create for ourselves and others as well.”
3) Compact defense. While the offense will be spaced out, the defense will look the exact the opposite.
“Oh yeah, it’s a packed defense,” Griffey said. “It’s going to be five guys guarding the ball instead of just one-on-one and man-to-man. There’s no denying out to the perimeter. If your man has the ball, you’ll be up on him. But everybody has to be inside the three-point line. It’s about positioning. It’s about relying on your teammates to help you out and you have to know that they’re there. Coach has a good phrase, ‘guard your yard.’ You have to be able to guard your man a yard away in each direction. If we can do that, we’ll be fine.”
Preseason talk is customarily full of hope and potential. While there was plenty of that Wednesday, Groce, however, was frank about two areas the team must improve to have success this season.
1) Ball handling. Abrams will start at point guard, or lead guard as Groce often calls it, but given the nature of the offensive philosophy, each guard on the court must be able to handle the ball.
“I’d say my (biggest) concern, quite honestly is ball handling,” Groce said. “I’ve been saying that for some time. To play the way that we want to play, you have to have multiple ball handlers. Guys have certainly gotten better.”
Abrams will shoulder the load, but Richardson and Paul, among others, must step up and help out.
“I worked on a lot of things, trying to get my point guard skills better because they told me I’m going to play point guard a little more than I have in the past,” Paul said. “That’s nothing new for me. I’ve been backup point since I was a freshmen.”
Groce said: “Brandon and DJ both as fourth year players are going to handle the basketball for us. Brandon, we practiced (Tuesday) and Brandon looked good, had one of his better practices playing the point. He’s getting better. D.J.’s really worked to attack his ball handling spring, summer and fall. Coach (Jamall) Walker has worked with him.”
2) Play in the post. The team must replace center Meyers Leonard, who left for the NBA after averaging 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds as a sophomore a year ago.
“We’ve got a relatively inexperienced frontcourt… but we have bodies,” Groce said.
A committee of post players will handle the post positions, with seniors Griffey, McLaurin, and sophomore Nnanna Egwu expected to lead the way.
McLaurin, who transferred from Coastal Carolina in the offseason, says he’s physically the strongest player on the team. “I want to average a double-double,” he said. “But more importantly, I want to win.”
Griffey is more of a stretch-the-floor type player, known for his three-point shooting. Groce cited Egwu for his effort and attitude in offseason workouts, saying he’s “the guy that’s gone above and beyond. He’s the type of guy that if you ask him to do 10 pushups he does 13. You tell him you want him to become a better student of the game and he’s up in the office every day asking for DVDs.”
Sophomores Mike Shaw, Myke Henry and Ibby Djimde, as well as redshirt freshman Devin Langford, are expected to contribute at the forward positions as well.
The stage is set. The show begins at 5 p.m. Friday when the first practice takes place. Illinois will then practice two times each on Saturday and Sunday.
“I mean, I’m feeling pretty good,” Paul said. “Everyone likes each other. We’re getting along. Every day we’re coming in to get better and improve.”