MJ: On chemistry, Paul and the State Farm Center

MJ: On chemistry, Paul and the State Farm Center

On Sundays during the offseason, basketball beat writer Marcus Jackson weighs in on the sport he loves:

CHAMPAIGN — These are unprecedented times in the coaching career of John Groce. When summer workouts begin this week, the second-year Illinois basketball coach will go to work instructing a team featuring nine new faces.

“It’s very unique,” Groce said.

Groce, though, is used to dealing with a massive roster turnover from one season to the next. In between his first and second seasons at Ohio, Groce welcomed seven new faces to the Bobcats’ program. That second team at Ohio won 22 games, including a victory against third-seeded Georgetown in the NCAA tournament.

“It was a similar type of transition from first year to second year. I don’t think even as an assistant coach we’ve ever had nine,” Groce said.

The challenge, as the Illinois returning players and newcomers matriculated to campus last week to begin the summer schedule, is to somehow mold this group of unfamiliar parts into a team.

The first step, Groce said, is for the coaching staff to get to know the players on an even deeper level than it already does. For the five freshmen — Austin Colbert, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate — and the four transfers — Aaron Cosby, Jon Ekey, Darius Paul and Ahmad Starks — it will be the first time they’ve been on campus for more than three successive days.

“We’re going to learn a lot about these guys quickly just from being around them more,” Groce said.

There’s a level of excitement, and some concern, for Groce to begin working with this group that has been put together over the course of the last year and molding it into a team. Starting Monday and for the next eight weeks, the Illinois coaches can spend up to two hours each week on the court with the team, and the players can work on strength and conditioning for up to six hours per week.

“The more student-athletes you add or delete from a team, even if it’s just one guy, the dynamic of the team changes,” Groce said. “The more there is, I think it’s even more to a larger degree, so you’ve got to have your antennas up. I’m anxious to start working with them and browbeating them with what we’re about and how we do things, the standards we have.”

In addition to teaching them the ins and outs of the offensive and defensive systems, and growing team chemistry on the court, Groce plans to test his players, newcomers and veterans alike, to get a better idea of their mental dispositions.

“I want to put them in adverse situations where they’re tested so I can learn more about them and how they can handle it and what their response might be to those things,” he said. “I want to put them in situations where they have to rely on one another and deal with adversity and grind and fight through it and find a way. That can be in the weightroom, on the court or different things we do with them from a team-building perspective; those are the two biggest things we want to accomplish over the course of the eight weeks.”

Paul continues process
As Groce continues to make preparations for his next team, he remains involved in the career of one of the players who was most instrumental in Illinois’ NCAA tournament run last season. Team Most Outstanding Player Brandon Paul has spent the bulk of his summer working out for various NBA teams in an effort to improve his stock in the upcoming NBA draft.

Groce is on the phone regularly with NBA personnel, who call to inquire about the 6-foot-4 guard.

“It’s still pretty early at this point, and we’re at that phase where it’s a lot of workouts and interviews, a lot of phone calls for me from teams. We hope everything goes well,” Groce said. “I know he’s going to work out well and interview well and just let the chips fall. Hopefully there’s a team out there that feels like he’s the right fit for them.”

Groce has kept in touch with Paul, too, who continues to be projected to be selected anywhere from early in the second round to not picked at all.

“I’ve talked with him quite a bit through text,” Groce said. “I check in with him, ‘Where you working out? Who you working out with? How’s everything going?’ Our staff does the same thing; he communicates with all of us.”

Groce is familiar with the NBA process from his years as an assistant at Ohio State and Xavier. Among the current NBA players whom Groce helped coach include David West, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook.

“It’s helpful (in recruiting), for sure,” Groce said. “A lot of kids have the dream or the vision that they’d like to end up at that level to play in the NBA or play professionally. It helps, for sure.”

Center of attention
In addition to maintaining things from a basketball perspective on the court, Groce is very involved with the State Farm Center renovation project and has been a key player in helping the fundraising effort for the $160 million endeavor that is expected to be completed at the beginning of the 2016-17 basketball season.

“As much as they want me to be involved, I will be. It’s an important project; it’s huge for the development and growth of our basketball program. It’s big. I’ve called it a program-changing event, and as much as I can be involved and be helpful to spread and send the message of what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to grow our program, I will,” Groce said. “It affects women’s basketball, too. It affects commencement and convocation. It’s a community- and university-used building; it affects a lot of people. It’s a big deal. Right now it involves a lot of people being on the same page. (Athletic director) Mike (Thomas) has done an unbelievable job of leading the project, and the development office is working their tail off. We’re excited about the progress we’ve made.

“People are excited, want to be a part of it and looking forward to it getting completed. It’s going to take some people contributing and some time, effort and energy on the part of a lot of different people as a project that’s this massive does.”

Changes at Ubben
Before the State Farm Center renovation projects got rolling, Illinois made some changes inside its practice facility, the Ubben Basketball Complex. Last year the team’s video room was updated, and the weight-room renovation project is nearing its completion.

Cosmetically, the banners inside the gym on the men’s side were redone to feature the program’s Final Four teams and the honored jerseys. The east wall in the men’s gym used to feature banners of each of the current players. Those recently were replaced by a mural featuring Tyler Griffey’s game-winner against No. 1 Indiana from last season. And though nothing specific has been announced, plans are in the works to continue improving the practice facility.

“There’s always a plan for something. We’re trying to get better in every area every day,” Groce said. “Sometimes things, as part of our master plan, take a little bit of time, and you have to sequence things and prioritize. We’re doing that and evaluating everything constantly, whether it’s the facilities or how we evaluate the guys. All of the coaches, Mike included, went to clinics and brought new ideas. We’re all the time asking ourselves what we can do to get better, and that’s how you improve. If you don’t have that mind-set, you get blown by pretty quickly. That’s how great programs and organizations think.”

Camp season has arrived
June is a busy one in the Illinois basketball program as campers of all ages invade campus to take part in the clinics organized by director of operations Mark Morris and special assistant Ryan Pedon.

The first camp, the parent-child camp, began Friday.

“It’s a huge time. Mark Morris does an unbelievable job with our camps, he really does. He organizes them, supervises them and our staff is present and involved as much as we can be,” Groce said. “I try to be over there on a daily basis unless there’s  a commitment I can’t be there for. It’s important. It’s a chance to open up Illinois basketball for the community and let people come in and join hands with us and have a great experience. Last summer’s camps went well, and this year’s numbers are up in every camp. Mark and our camp office have done a great job in marketing the camps. We’re going to keep building it, and hopefully people feel good about the experience when they come to campus. We’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback. A lot of people will be back from last summer, and hopefully the same thing happens next summer.”

Groce partook in the parent-child camp as a participant with his 7-year-old son Conner, taking instructions from Morris instead of barking them out.

“I just follow his lead,” Groce said.

3 pointers

What’s happening outside Champaign-Urbana:


1 One of first-year Northwestern coach Chris Collins’ first orders of business when he took over in Evanston was to lock up assistant coach Tavaras Hardy, a holdover from Bill Carmody’s staff. Hardy wasn’t long for Collins’ staff, however, leaving last week to take a job on John Thompson III’s crew at Georgetown. Hardy’s presence on his alma mater’s staff would have eased Collins’ transition in bridging the gap between the old staff and the new one and in recruiting. Hardy was responsible for standouts John Shurna, Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb. Collins, a Chicagoland native, has plenty of ties to the area, so he’ll be fine. But his choice to replace Hardy on the Northwestern bench will be a key one.

2 College basketball games might be played exclusively indoors this season. Those aircraft carrier games that became so fashionable the last two years likely will be nixed this upcoming season after complications last year. The Michigan State-North Carolina game in 2011 was a rousing success. In the wake of that, three games were scheduled for 2012, but only one — Syracuse-San Diego State — was completed. And that one was moved a day later because of weather issues. Georgetown and Florida played a half before condensation on the court made it unsafe, and Ohio State-Marquette was canceled. There still will be an Armed Forces Classic, however, with Oregon and Georgetown playing in South Korea.

3 North Carolina was expected to enter the 2013-14 season as a consensus Top 5 team, but the Tar Heels might take a step down depending on the status of guard P.J. Hairston (right), who has found himself in some serious legal trouble this week. The guard, who led the team in scoring last season (14.6), was arrested Wednesday and charged with marijuana possession after a traffic stop. On Friday, Durham, N.C., police confirmed that a loaded 9mm with a magazine holding nine rounds was found just outside his vehicle at the stop. This is serious business, and it’s possible Roy Williams will have to plan on going forward without the junior-to-be swingman.

1-10
Early candidates for 2013-14 Big Ten Player of the Year:

1
Gary Harris,
Michigan State
Freshman of the Year (right) would have been a lottery pick this year. As a result, Sparty might start season at No. 1.

2
Aaron Craft,
Ohio State
If senior point guard continues making offensive strides, he’ll be in the mix.

3
Mitch McGary, Michigan
After breakout NCAA tournament, the sophomore big man expected to continue improvement.

4
Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Big man recently invited to tryout for USA Basketball collegiate team, an experience that can do wonders.

5
Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
Hawkeyes are expected to return to NCAAs next season, and the guard will be a big reason if they do.

6
Keith Appling, Michigan State
Point guard could be hurt with so much star power on his squad, but his leadership can spark a Final Four run.

7
Tim Frazier,
Penn State
If he returns to form following season off to recover from Achilles injury, he’ll shoot up this list.

8
Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
Athletic forward could have bolted for the NBA and been a high pick. If he works on jumper, he can be scary.

9
Andre Hollins, Minnesota
One of the Gophers’ few constants last season, it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to new coach Richard Pitino.

10
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
Badgers haven’t had an athletic talent like the sophomore-to-be on the wing since Marcus Landry.

3 questions for ...

... Illinois 2014 commit Michael Finke, who underwent an appendectomy May 8

How’s the recovery going?

I’ve been back for a week and a half. I got medically cleared last Tuesday. Doctors told me I could start playing, kind of slow to start. I’ve been working back into it with some individual workouts with my dad, lifting, open gyms at Centennial. I’ve been staying pretty busy trying to get back into the swing of things. Conditioning is the biggest thing, so I’ve been running a lot trying to get that back. I lost a few pounds. I was up to 206, and then I went down to 198, and now I’m back to about 203. It’ll get back.

How hard was it to sit out and let yourself recover?
It was terrible. I was out for two weeks, and the first week I wasn’t able to go to school. I had a bunch of homework; friends were bringing me homework and that’s all I was doing. I was busy during the day, but I couldn’t hoop or lift or anything; that wasn’t much fun at all.

What do you have planned for the summer?
I work; I babysit this family from 8:30 to 3:30 Monday-Thursdays. My off days for that are Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m still working basketball on those days, though. I have open gyms, I work out with my dad and I go to Ubben and hoop with the players. I’m trying to get to know the players and the new recruits and all that, so I’m going to be pretty busy.

— Marcus Jackson

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