Tate: Groce on the prowl
“We recruit every day. A guy I worked for said, ‘It’s like shaving. If you don’t do it every day, you’ll look pretty shabby.’ ” — Illini coach John Groce
Groce always looks clean-shaven, from his chin to the top of his head.
And he is emphatic about using all of his 13 NCAA scholarships as long as he finds the right fits. So if you think the 2013-14 UI roster is set, think again.
Queried during Tuesday’s news conference, Groce said:
“One coach mentioned to me that fifth-year seniors are as highly sought as Top 50s in the early signing period.
“We are considering all options. Every possible scenario, from fifth-years to fourth-years to 2014 and 2015. If I was guessing, with three (scholarships) to give, I’d say there’s a very strong likelihood we’ll use one of them. As for two or three, we’ll see.”
Groce recently visited Seton Hall guard Aaron Cosby, who says he is down to Illinois and Missouri, and feels comfortable that he would be a good fit either place. Missouri had transfers on this season’s team from Oregon, Auburn, UAB, Pepperdine, Columbia and Connecticut.
“I’m going to visit Missouri and Illinois this month and decide,” Cosby said. “I’ve had to turn down some great options from really good schools, but I feel what these two schools have to offer will be the best fit for me.”
As an upcoming junior who averaged 10.1 points in 65 career games at Seton Hall, Cosby would have two years of eligibility, thereby cutting into the UI’s available scholarships for current high school juniors. Seton Hall was 3-15 in the Big East this season.
Expanding on this hot subject, Groce said:
“That’s how recruiting is. You have to roll up your sleeves every day and be thinking about it every day. We’ll continue to try to attract quality people and quality players to our program.”
Illinois has taken fifth-year transfers Sam Maniscalco and Sam McLaurin in consecutive years. It isn’t clear how many Sams are out there this year.
“With fifth-year seniors, it might depend on whether you have a previous relationship ... but it’s mostly us seeking them out,” Groce said. “With just six returning from our 14-member squad, we have a lot of needs ... a lot of areas to shore up. We’ll be less experienced.”
Departing players take with them 1,463 of 2,465 UI points, 564 of 1,215 rebounds and 209 of 280 three-pointers. Compared with others in the Big Ten, this would be deemed a rebuilding situation. It’ll be all the more difficult for Groce to establish the rotation depth he prefers.
“We want to reach the point where we can play nine or 10 players,” he said. “It’s great for our style and the tempo we want. We led the Big Ten in forcing turnovers, and we want to be even more aggressive with depth.”
Groce emphasized that he recruited five freshmen with the expectation that they will play next season.
“We’ll let them battle. We’ll see who rises to the top,” he said.
That said, Groce emphasized that he won’t have a good read on the newcomers until he sees them in practice. And he is setting up the schedule with more home games to suit a youthful roster.
“That’s our No. 1 priority in scheduling ... home games,” he said.
Questioned about individual players, Groce expanded on key members. Here are three samples.
Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice:
“He had a great sit-out year. In my 19 years, I can think of one or two transfers that had a comparable year in terms of improvement. He has worked very hard. He has done a good job in school, lost 30-some pounds, dropped 5 percent in body fat, lifted his tail off, shot a ton of shots and is in his best cardiovascular condition.
“Ray is tough, and he will take a lot of pride in putting on that jersey. He is very versatile. He has the ability to affect the game in so many areas. He is physically strong and can rebound for his position and defend. He can score and get to the free throw line. If his shot isn’t falling, he can win in other ways.”
Upcoming senior Joe Bertrand:
“Biggest thing with Joe is we want to develop his upper-body strength and see him continue to work on his catch-and-shoot game and develop his handle. He shared his thoughts with me, and he wants to be really good.”
Malcolm Hill, incoming freshman from Belleville East:
“We’re excited about Malcolm. When he came to campus, I quickly learned how humble and hungry he is and how much he loves the University of Illinois. He has tons of upside. He’s good now, and he’ll be better when he adds strength to his frame. He’s like Ray in that he can score so many ways. For him, the sky is the limit.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.