CHAMPAIGN — As he considers the expectations for his first team at Illinois, John Groce reminds that he's been in a similar situation before.
It was the 2005-06 season. Thad Matta was in his second year at Ohio State, and Groce was an assistant there. Ohio State placed no one on the All-Big Ten preseason team, didn't appear in either Top 25 poll and wasn't predicted to finish among the top three in the league.
"We were picked ninth or 10th by some people," Groce said.
As Illinois continues its early preparations for the 2012-13 season, it's nearing that hopeful time when preseason polls are released and expectations are established. The wise decision, Illini fans, would be to ignore them. Those predictions won't be flattering.
The scenario at Ohio State in 2005-06 was slightly different than what Groce has at Illinois in 2012-13. But there are parallels. Given his experience with those Buckeyes, Groce described how that roster defied the odds and won an outright Big Ten title.
"It was an older team. It was very experienced," Groce said. "And those guys carried a huge chip on their shoulder. And I think a lot of it was all the chatter about who we had coming in: 'Hey, this thing will get righted once (Greg) Oden and (Mike) Conley and (Daequan) Cook and (David) Lighty and (Othello) Hunter show up. We're a year away.'
"And they got tired of hearing that. They got really tired of hearing that."
It remains to be seen if these Illini share the kind of competitive edge that carried those Buckeyes to unexpected heights. These Illini haven't shown that edge for extended stretches.
The biggest difference: Matta was in his second season, so the players were familiar with how he wanted to play and believed in his system. But it wasn't as though there was a mass infusion of talent from 2004-05 to 2005-06 that boosted the Buckeyes.
Their unexpected season was more a product of team than star power. Terence Dials was named Big Ten Player of the Year but became the first Player of the Year to go undrafted. Instead, the Buckeyes had five players who averaged double figures in scoring.
When Groce talks about the '05-06 Buckeyes — one of his favorite teams as a coach — he describes many of the same talking points he's presented to the current Illini.
"They bought into every single thing we told them. The culture, the team-ism. And they had an unbelievable offseason between '04-05 and '05-06," Groce said. "And everybody that played in '04-05 played again in '05-06. They were used to the system. They believed in one another. That's a case where it wasn't like recruiting had taken off and you injected a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans. That was a culture thing. That was a development thing. That was a team thing. That's the reason those guys were so good."
Groce is too calculated to predict a similar run for his first Illinois team. And he's seen enough workouts to recognize it's a team with weaknesses, particularly in terms of ball handling and decision-making.
Still, it figures he will drum up memories of the surprising '05-06 Buckeyes to convince the '12-13 Illini preseason projections don't dictate the end result. And the first-year coach is hopeful a championship-caliber team will form at Illinois sooner than expected.
"I don't want to put a timeline on it. I just know that the championships that I've been a part of in the past have a combination of those things — a great culture in place and talented players," Groce said. "Coaches, in general, are not patient. I didn't come into this thing saying, 'Hey, I've got a 10-year plan.' That's not my deal at all. I want to do it now. Some people will say that's not possible. I don't want to hear that.
"That's the way to approach it: Let's go with this deal and make it happen now. I think if you take that approach to this deal — let's make it happen now — you'll end up getting to that point quicker than if you had taken the other approach. We're trying to do everything we can to help the University of Illinois be competitive immediately."
Know this about Illini recruiting on John Groce’s watch.
Campus visits will be detailed, tailored to fit the prospect and his personality, and the first-year staff will cover all bases.
Demetrius Jackson, the No. 1 priority on Groce’s recruiting big board, continued his official visit to Illinois on Saturday. The Mishawaka (Ind.) point guard attended the first half of Illini football’s 24-7 win against Western Michigan at Memorial Stadium.
Jackson toured the field before kickoff. He scrimmaged with the current players at Ubben Basketball Complex and at a team outing at a local bowling alley. He met and talked with Malcolm Hill, an Illini commitment, who made the trip from the St. Louis area on Saturday. Jackson also took photos of himself in a No. 11 Illini basketball jersey at the Assembly Hall.
At least for now, look for Kansas and Notre Dame to be the strongest competition for Jackson. But it appears Groce & Co. continued to make a favorable impression on the 2013 prospect. Campus visits figure to be a strength of Groce’s recruiting efforts, and Jackson's trip represents arguably the Illini’s most important official visit since Derrick Rose in 2006.
Maverick Morgan took a leadership role at a young age.
At one point his baby brother was to be named Atticus. Maverick, a fourth- or fifth-grader at the time, warned his parents of the ribbing his brother might endure.
"He told us, 'I'll be there to back him up, but it might be a problem for him with other kids,' " said their father, Jeff Morgan. "We thought, 'You know, he's probably right.' "
"I kind of trumped the Atticus thing," Morgan added, and his brother's name is Mitchell.
Illinois got a sharp personality in Morgan, the 6-foot-10 senior at Springboro (Ohio). The Illini recruit is well-spoken and up to date on current events. He's followed closely as Malcolm Hill, the 2013 recruit from Belleville East, recovers from injury this offseason.
"That's a strong dude right there," Morgan said.
And he was familiar with Demetrius Jackson, the top-tier point guard who made a recruiting visit to Illinois over the weekend. The Illini are hoping Jackson becomes the third member of their 2013 recruiting class.
Morgan will sign a letter of intent with Illinois in November. Until then he's enjoying his senior year of high school. On Friday he attended Springboro's football matchup against Centerville, the prep powerhouse. And he starts open-gym pickup games with his basketball team Tuesday. Springboro advanced to the district finals and returns three starters.
"We're hoping to get down to Columbus (for the state finals in March)," Morgan said.
In a state with generational allegiances to its university, Morgan was raised a Buckeyes fan. He made three recruiting trips to Ohio State — one for a football game, two for hoops.
"I grew up learning that 'Michigan' is a bad word," he said.
Morgan said his next campus visit is scheduled for the Oct. 27 homecoming game against Indiana. And, yes, Maverick's name was inspired by Tom Cruise's character in "Top Gun."
Pressure's on, John Groce.
The previous four head coaches at Illinois — Lou Henson, Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber — never lost a nonconference home game in their first seasons.
But their perfect home record (20-0) didn't come without close calls.
Henson's first season showed a two-point win vs. Missouri-Rolla and a one-point win vs. New Mexico. Self's first nonconference season included an overtime win against Seton Hall. In that one, Illinois trailed by 21 points before Frank Williams led the biggest Illini come-from-behind win in Assembly Hall history. And in Weber's first season, Illinois State and Marcus Arnold took the Illini to overtime before the hosts prevailed 80-73.
Illinois hosts seven nonconference opponents this season. Illinois will be favored in all seven. The only power-conference team, Georgia Tech, is coming off an 11-20 finish, and it's unlikely any of the lower-conference teams will be favored to win their leagues.
Of the 12 guaranteed opponents on the nonconference schedule, only four finished above .500 in their conference last season. None won their conference.
In coming years, probably after the 2013-14 season, there figure to be changes in the Illini's scheduling philosophy. The staff has said it wants more home games. To accomplish that, Illinois might have to forgo a faraway early-season tournament (Maui, South Padre, Preseason NIT, etc.) and host an event at the Assembly Hall.
But more home games won't come at the expense of the marquee event on the Illini schedule. The Braggin' Rights rivalry with Missouri, played annually in St. Louis, isn't going anywhere under his watch, Groce said.
"I think it's great. I think it's big time," he said. "I don't know how many nonconference rivalries are better. I guess you could say Xavier-UC. Or maybe there are a couple others I can't think of. But there's not a lot that are comparable (to Illinois-Missouri)."
Considering the ingredients — annual matchup, teams from bordering states and power conferences, neutral site — there doesn't appear to be a better one.
The longtime Indiana-Kentucky rivalry, a fixture on the nonconference scene since 1969, is over after the schools couldn't agree on whether the series should be played on campus or neutral sites. This year's Illinois-Missouri showdown is Dec. 22, a Saturday.
The most famous Illini of all time has been a regular around the UI basketball offices.
The coaching staff seems to have made fast friends with Dee Brown, who stopped in for multiple visits in recent weeks. No. 11 hasn't lost a step with his energy level, either.
Assistant coach Dustin Ford joked with Groce, "I've finally met someone with more energy than you." Brown is scheduled to depart for a season in Turkey in the next week.
"I've really enjoyed getting to know him," Groce said. "That kid's a wolf. He's a competitor. If you could coach 13 guys like him, you'd be thrilled. He's tough. He's got great toughness, great energy. I've really enjoyed having him around."
A central part of Groce's transition has been connecting with former Illini.
That includes phone calls, invitations back to campus, a welcoming party at Ryan Baker's home in Chicago — even a lunch date with Coach Henson at Lou's favorite spot in Savoy.
The first on-campus formal gathering will be Sept. 14-15, when the Illini host an alumni weekend. Former Illini are invited to attend the football game vs. Charleston Southern.
"We want to get those guys back as much as possible," Groce said.
The mid-September date, however, prevents many players from returning to campus. In the future, the Illini will lean toward hosting alumni gatherings in late summer.
"That allows the NBA guys and the overseas guys to come," he said.
The ideal scenario would be an alumni game in August. Or, if the Illini are preparing for an August overseas trip, the alumni could attend a scrimmage with the current roster.
On the NFL level, Groce is a lifelong Chicago Bears fan.
He's also a fan of college football playing a major role in basketball recruiting.
His two previous programs milked strong football programs for basketball success. It's understood Ohio State football boosts Thad Matta's staff, of which Groce was a member for four years. He also emphasized the importance of Ohio football in four seasons there.
"Frank Solich did an unbelievable job when I was there," Groce said. "We had great guidance and leadership in the athletic department. So we used (football) when I was there. I think it's a real asset, for sure."
NCAA rules prohibit the coach from commenting on recruiting visits, but two high-profile prospects were scheduled to visit Illinois for football games. Mishawaka (Ind.) senior Demetrius Jackson attended Saturday's season opener, while Chicago Simeon senior Kendrick Nunn is scheduled to visit for the Charleston Southern game Sept. 15.
Since Groce arrived at Illinois, several visiting recruits have noted how he walks with a fast pace. On football weekends, you'll probably see him moving quickly through a tailgate or punching a golf cart from Ubben Basketball Complex to Memorial Stadium.
And his voice raised when asked how Illini football can impact Illini basketball.
"Oh, it's huge. If anything, in addition to the fact there's excitement right now with what Tim (Beckman) is building, it gives kids a chance to see how passionate Illini fans are about sports in general," Groce said last week. "And you're bringing back Illini Street Fest now. Those things give us a chance, as a university, to showcase our passion for intercollegiate athletics. I think it's great. I can't wait for it."
Off the court, Groce's first team has been solid with class attendance and academic performance, he said. Collectively, the Illini showed a summer GPA above 3.0.
"In terms of citizenship stuff, we've got a really good group," Groce said. "The good thing about that is you get a chance to coach your team. You don't have to worry about guys taking care of what they need to take care of. We can focus on basketball."