What Illini Nation must work diligently on these days is ... p-a-t-i-e-n-c-e. From the coaches to the players to the fans. With a capital P.
What we’re seeing is exasperation, whether it’s losing football games by multiple touchdowns or falling in five sets on the volleyball court. And now it’s basketball season, which provides only bad memories, men and women, from a year ago.
New men’s coach John Groce finds himself facing the toughest, deepest Big Ten lineup in years. But he’s not here to make excuses. He’s just facing the fact that, much as he loves to run and play aggressively, well ... his inherited squad may not be ready for that overnight. There’s a reason why the Illini lost 12 of their last 14 basketball games.
“I have to keep reminding myself to be patient,” Groce said Wednesday. “As coaches, we’re aggressive in everything we do. As we establish how we do things on the court, off the court and academically, it is different for the players. Hopefully we can make the learning curve shallow and not steep, and give us a chance to be successful in Year 1.”
Getting a handle on things
Groce’s four Ohio Bobcat teams, including last season’s Sweet 16 club (29-8), had more assists than turnovers. Last season Illinois had 430 miscues and 400 assists, a statistic revealing the major Illini shortcoming: ball handling. And it is around heady ball handling that Groce wants to construct his offense.
“We have the same guys back,” said Groce, an obvious reference to the shortcoming.
“Tracy Abrams is learning the point position, with Brandon Paul pinch-hitting there. To play the way we want, we need multiple ball handlers. Do we have that right now? I’m not sure. Will we shoot ourselves in the foot initially by playing a style that doesn’t fit our team square peg into square hole. It’s too early to answer that.”
Nor is rebounding a strong suit with Meyers Leonard gone. Said Groce:
“If we want to run, we have to rebound better. Nnanna Egwu is improving, and he has to show it, especially on the defensive board. We’ll also count on our wings to rebound.
“I think Joe Bertrand is a gifted 3-man in that regard.
“We’ll play the zone some. But we have to learn our man first. Our defense is philosophically different than what they’ve known the last nine years.”
As is the offense, where Abrams will run more ball screens and seek to create more penetration than jump shots.
Last year’s recruiting class will carry a major share of the load for the next three seasons. If Egwu can take his improvement into the games, that’ll ease concerns in the middle. He and Abrams could provide a nucleus to build around. And then there’s Myke Henry, a scoring forward who needs to replace flashiness with consistency. Those three have a lot of athleticism.
“Nnanna is a different center (than Leonard),” Groce said. “You see a guy 6-11 and think he should be playing exclusively on the block, but that’s not him. His strength is his mobility. Last week he made 73 of 100 shots from the arc, so we’re going to move him around not only this year but in his career here.
“Sam McLaurin (transfer) is 6-8 and can play both inside positions, so we can play them together or to back up each other.
“Tracy has been great in terms of his effort. He’s like Egwu in that way. But just because you’re 6-1, that doesn’t mean you’re a point guard. There’s more to it than that. You need to run a team, defeat pressure, understand time and score situations, be the front porch of your defense, be a communicator and an extension of the coach on the floor ... all those things he’s working diligently at. He is a quick study and fun to work with.”
But Abrams hasn’t yet shown the natural play-making skills that marked recent UI standouts Demetri McCamey, Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Frank Williams.
In six months on the job, Groce had spent roughly three months on the road, either in attending UI affairs or recruiting in such distant places as West Virginia, Florida and California.
No Illini coach has ever roamed so far afield. And he managed to attract two valuable transfers in McLaurin (Coastal Carolina) and former Centennial star Rayvonte Rice (Drake).
Groce came close last month on Mishawaka (Ind.) guard Demetrius Jackson, and it’ll be the same when prep schooler Xavier Rathan-Mayes announces for another school Saturday. As it stands — and he’s still working toward the Nov. 14 date — he’ll sign two Top 50 players in Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn and Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill, and two developing players in Simeon point guard Jaylon Tate and 6-10 Maverick Morgan of Springboro, Ohio.
Discussing his whirlwind, coast-to-coast search, Groce said:
“Hopefully this won’t be typical. But having five scholarships to give, we felt we had to play catch-up a little bit and maybe spend more time away than I’d prefer.
“I’m glad to be back and turn our focus onto this year’s team.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.