Groce, Illinois, enter Year 3 with high expectations



DEPARTURES: Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey

RETURNING: Tracy Abrams (out for season), Rayvonte Rice, Nnanna Egwu, Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate, Maverick Morgan, Austin Colbert, Mike LaTulip

NEWCOMERS: Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby, Leron Black, Michael Finke

Illinois basketball head coach John Groce graduated from Taylor University about 20 years ago with a degree that had nothing to do with his future profession. Groce received a B.S. in mathematics in 1994 from the tiny private school located in Upland, Ind. The degree is still paying off for the meticulous, scheming basketball coach.

“We’re teaching (our players) how to play basketball within the system. It’s kind of like how I used to teach geometry,” Groce said. “To solve different equations you had to know different theorems. If you didn’t know the theorems, you weren’t going to get the answer or solution to the problem.”

Groce didn’t have the right parts of the equation during his first two years at Illinois. The former Ohio coach left a program where all the pieces fit his system with precision. Groce loves to utilize a fast-paced, high-octane offense with a multitude of scoring options. Groce took over Illinois during the 2012-13 season with Bruce Weber’s leftovers and chose to stick with the system that nearly brought Ohio to the Elite 8 in 2012.

Illinois ranked second in the country in 3-point attempts during Groce’s first year in Champaign, consistent with Ohio’s sixth-ranked shooting barrage in 2011-12. Groce also kept his team playing fast as Illinois ranked 21st in the country in field goal attempts. The results were encouraging. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson led Illinois to the NCAA Tournament where they fell to Miami in the round of 32 amid controversy. A blown late out-of-bounds call deprived Illinois of the chance of reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. Even though the team overachieved, Groce still didn’t have the chance to utilize his system to his liking. Year Two would be an even bigger challenge.

Groce just didn’t have the tools to work his craft. The shooting of Paul, Richardson, and Griffey were now gone and players like Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, and Jon Ekey were asked to fill their roles. But Abrams and Rice can’t shoot.

Illinois could never get it going offensively last season. Groce was forced to use a slower style that was less predicated on shooting. Illinois ranked 82nd in the country in 3-point attempts, down from its No. 2 spot the year before. Although freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill helped the team surge late, Illinois had a disastrous offensive season, ranking just 177th in the NCAA according to KenPom’s offensive efficiency.

“Obviously offensively you don’t want to be 177th,” Groce said. “Our first year team at Illinois we were quote on quote ‘pretty sexy’ offensively. We could shoot it, drive it, we had multiple weapons and we shot threes. We played up and down. Last year we were not able to do that with the team we had. Did I like that from a conviction standpoint? Absolutely not. Drives me nuts.”

Entering Year Three, Groce finally has the pieces to solve the problem.

“I think our guys know the theorems at such a higher level that you’re able to give them more complicated, challenging things,” Groce said. “You’re able to teach more of the nuances, the intricacies of the offense.”

Joseph Bertrand and Ekey depart from last year’s squad, but Illinois will return everyone else, and then some. Transfers Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby join an Illini team that projects to be much deeper offensively. Last year’s leading scorer Rice remains the focal point, but Nunn and Hill will be counted on even more this season. Freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke also join an Illini team that finally delivers what Groce has always wanted; his own team.

“This year I expect us to be a lot better because we got more weapons,” Groce said. “We shoot it better, we pass it better, we’re deeper. We have more guys that are capable of scoring double figures on a regular basis. I think that’s going to make us more versatile offensively. I think we’ll be able to hit the gas a little bit harder.”

Groce can’t contain his excitement for this year’s team even with Abrams being ruled out for the season with a torn ACL. Abrams’ on-court leadership and scrappy style of play will be missed, but his career 26.9 percent 3-point percentage and shaky playmaking skills won’t be. Starks and Cosby will more than make up for his production. The two sweet-shooting guards had to sit out last season after transferring from Oregon State and Seton Hall, respectively, but each player adds another dimension to an offense in need of a spark.

“We will space the floor out,” Starks said. “It’s going to be hard to sit in gaps when you have two guys who shot 40 percent from three our last year playing. It helps out driving lanes, it helps out post play. We have that inside, outside presence. You’re going to have to pick your poison.”

If Illinois is indeed an improved offensive unit, the Big Ten better watch out, because the Illini are already elite on the other end of the floor.

Illinois was quite simply one of the best defensive teams in the country last season. The Illini ranked 11th in the nation in KenPom’s defensive efficiency thanks in large part to team captain Nnanna Egwu.

“Nnanna’s the anchor,” Groce said.

It’s hard to watch an Illinois game and not notice the defensive intensity of Egwu. He’s that 6-foot-11 dude that has a relentless motor, manic pace, and roams the court like a guard. Groce was adamant in saying Egwu was snubbed from the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team, and it’s hard to argue with him. Egwu consistently shut down opposing bigs with his freakish mobility and length, but his most valuable trait is his help defense.

“It’s good to have a guy behind you that can clean up your mistakes,” Rice said. “A 7-foot guy down there just waiting. It’s good to have a guy like that.”

Illinois has earned the reputation of being a nasty, physical defensive team. They’re not too fun to play against.

“It’s always hard playing against them,” Ohio State guard Shannon Scott said. “They have so much great energy and so much athleticism and length that it’s hard to get past them.”

“They were tough man, tough on defense, every possession, especially when we went to Champaign, they were great on defense,” said Nebraska forward Terran Petteway, who shot 5-of-18 against Illinois on Feb. 26. “They had me frustrated a little bit. That game was pretty tough. They hold their hats on being a great defensive team.”

As scary as it may sound, Egwu thinks this team could be even better defensively this season.

“We’re committed to the defensive end of the floor,” Egwu said. “It’s crazy because as good as we are, 11th in the country in defense, we always see things on the defense side where we could be a lot better. That’s what’s great about this.”

Groce has had mixed results in his first two years at the helm of Illinois. The first year featured a “sexy” offense, but the team still failed to reach new heights. The second year featured an in-your-face defense, but the NIT was the end result. Year Three may finally be what the Illini faithful has been waiting for.

“One thing I know about Illinois fans, they’re not real patient,” said Thad Matta, whom Groce coached under on three teams in eight years. “What I’ve seen from the outside looking in, John has done a very good job of implementing what he’s trying to get established. His system, his type of players. I think he’s doing a great job.”

With his system, his players, and the pieces finally in place, the team knows what to expect this year.

“Coach always says, we expect to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s what we do here,” Starks said. “That’s what we’re expected to do.”

Mikey Wonsover

I am a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I love writing about sports. I watch almost every sport, but the Bulls are my passion.

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