CHAMPAIGN — As if John Groce’s voice alone wasn’t loud enough, the Illinois basketball coach entered the Ubben Basketball Complex gym at the start of his second season in charge of the program wearing a pair of shoes so loud they’d make his raspy voice cower in fear.
“Coach (Paris) Parham is our fashion guy, and he designed two pairs of shoes for me for practice, and this is one of them,” Groce said of his electric blue Nike running shoes, accented with bright orange designs and electric orange laces.
“The guys seem to like them. The other (pair) isn’t quite as loud. We’ve got ‘UI’ on them. The other ones have ‘TNT’ on them.”
The shoes made quite the statement as practice officially began Friday for the Illini, but know this: Groce’s voice will get plenty of work in the 30 allowable practices in the 42 days leading up to the 2013-14 season opener against Alabama State.
There’s plenty of buzz surrounding Groce and his program coming off the NCAA tournament run last season and the recruiting success of the last month. But with so many newcomers, including five freshmen, there are plenty of questions, too.
During the next six weeks, the answers to those questions should begin to clear.
“We’ve done some things, obviously, with workouts and gotten an idea of some of the things our guys can do over the course of the 13 weeks — eight weeks over the summer and five weeks in the fall — but we’re never able to string days back-to-back-to-back until now. That’s really when you learn about your team,” Groce said.
Groce met with the media prior to Friday’s first practice and touched on a variety of subjects, from handling the new early-season practice format, today’s Illini Street Jam and Ahmad Starks’ waiver situation.
— On the start of practice:
Obviously, it’s an exciting time of year with practice starting. This is one of those days for a coach, I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for this thing to get here, and it’s finally here. We’re excited to get started today, and the guys are even more excited than we are. We’ve got a great group of guys that really want to be good, they’re very coachable and they’ve been really fun to work with so far and anticipate that being the same here in the early season.
— On the new practice format allowing flexibility:
It does. One of the things that’s really neat is you’re going to be able to come up for air, basically, after every two days or three days. That’s kind of how we’ve positioned our practices here to use the 30 days available to us within the 42-day window. My guess is there’s going to be times we decide to practice on a day we were supposed to take off and give off on a day we were supposed to practice, and it comes back to that adaptability piece I was talking about.
— On all the new faces:
I hope to never have it again. I tell people and I tease them, I heard Lou Holtz once and he said he goes to bed at night and sleeps like a baby; he wakes up and cries every hour. That’s how you feel sometimes with our inexperience and our youth. It also brings a lot of energy. These guys have a lot of energy. We talk a lot about having no energy vampires in our program. As we did last year, I think these guys exhibit that at a pretty high level. It’ll be fun; we’ve got a long way to go. Our learning curve right now is pretty steep, but I think they’re eager, and that’s the most important thing.
— On Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey contributing immediately:
Obviously, those guys’ experience level will be helpful. I thought Sam McLaurin’s experience level was helpful last year, and we’ve got some guys that are back. A lot of people like to focus on, and naturally so, the nine newcomers because that is a really high number, but we’ve got some veterans who have done some quality work here that are an important part of what we do. We need them to lead our young guys, especially early, in terms of teaching them how we do things in practice.
— On expectations for Rayvonte Rice:
Most importantly what’s pretty cool is Ray has high expectations for himself, which is pretty neat when a player has that for himself. I think Ray’s a guy that is capable of guarding the other team’s best player most nights, certainly on the perimeter and being a guy that can score on the other end and make plays. He’s gotten himself in the best shape he’s ever been in in his life, and we’ve really encouraged him to do that because we’re going to rely on him to do a lot of things. He’s very versatile, and I know he’s excited to get a chance to put on that uniform. He’s dreamt about it since he was younger. He used to go to games when he was younger; now he gets a chance to put it on here. It’ll happen soon when we play a game; he’s excited about that.
— On Maverick Morgan wearing the James Augustine jersey for the first practice:
He won the rebounding battle last time out. We award that jersey. James is the all-time leading rebounder here at the University of Illinois, and anyone who leads practice in rebounding gets to wear that jersey the next time out.
— On Ahmad Starks’ waiver situation:
You always want to know, and we continue to have dialogue back and forth with our compliance office and the NCAA, and you want to know. Most importantly, the kid wants to know. I feel for the kid. We’re going to know here sooner than later. We’re finishing up a couple things and should have a formal answer here soon.
— On what Starks brings:
A play-making guard on the offensive end that can make guys better and score the ball and make decisions. He’s very good off pick-and-rolls.
— On this roster being more suited to playing his style:
We’re going to find out; obviously, we recruited a lot of them. I loved the guys we had last year that we inherited. Those guys were great guys, and we wouldn’t be in the position we are with our program right now if those guys hadn’t laid the foundation on concrete, and they did. Now it’s kind of up to us, and we’ve talked about it with the older guys in particular to kind of build floors on that concrete, keep moving that thing up, moving the needle. I think the guys are excited to do that. We look at guys and how they fit our style of play, and because we’ve been able to recruit guys that fit that style of play, I think that lends itself to leaning in the direction we want to play long term.
— On the momentum of the program:
All the things right now are leading in that direction. The guys we have on our team, the excitement we have about this season, the way the seniors handled themselves last year. What’s going on with the State Farm Center. What’s going on with recruiting. It’s a really neat time for me to be a small part of what’s happening at the University of Illinois, and it’s pretty cool.
— On who’s leading the SEAL Team charts:
That’s a tough one to call. It’s interesting, Ray and Nnanna have gotten a lot of the attention and rightfully so. Nnanna is over 250 pounds; Ray has lost a lot of body fat, cut weight, gotten stronger. But the one guy that’s hit me the last couple days that probably deserves as much kudos as those guys is Bertrand. He was out with the labrum injury, he had the surgery, he was out, he’s come back and he’s tested stronger in almost every area; he’s lowered his body fat, he’s gained 15 pounds. To do all of that while hurt and out and not able to practice with us full-go throughout the summer is pretty amazing. I think it shows his commitment level is pretty high.
— On the Illini Street Jam:
Marketing here does a great job. We’ve got a lot of great people here at this university. I always say, “It takes a village.” We’ve got people that are really good in different areas, and marketing is no different than any of the other areas. They’ve been exceptional with coming up with ideas and being creative, and we’ll hope and pray that tomorrow’s weather is good and go from there. It’ll be fun. We’re going to practice hard twice tomorrow, and it’s going to be tough and difficult. When we get there tomorrow night, I want our guys to enjoy it and interact with the student body and the community. I think that’s important here at Illinois.
— On other options besides Street Jam:
Honestly, my biggest thing was it was something they brought to the table. I thought it was creative; I thought it was outside-the-box thinking. We’ve kind of adapted a phrase we took from our SEAL Team training, “If you stay inside the box, you stay small, if you go outside the box, you grow and get big.” I thought it was an outside-the-box thought, and I told them let’s roll with it.
— On bringing everyone along:
We spent almost all the morning there going through our system, and we’re sitting there as a staff wondering ultimately how much are we going to be able to put in. Are we going to have to cut some of that back? Are we going to have to be vanilla? Is that in the best interest of this team? We’ve got to figure that out. More than anything, on a daily basis, I keep telling myself with nine new players, I’m going to have to be very adaptable. We’ve got a plan of when we’re practicing and what days we’re taking off and when we’re putting stuff in, but I’m going to have to be, as our staff is going to have to be, more adaptable probably than normal would be my guess.
— On future Midnight Madness at State Farm Center:
I’m not a fan of necessarily practicing at midnight because I don’t know if it’s great for the student-athletes. I like this concept that we’re doing tomorrow night. Certainly in subsequent years could we do it inside? Sure, I’m open to about anything that marketing comes up with that’s creative if they have a purpose behind it, which they did in this case. I wouldn’t rule that out, certainly. What used to happen with that rule is you couldn’t start until midnight and then most coaches were trying to go doubles and your rest/recovery is shortened, and I don’t know if that’s best for the student-athlete. I love the fact we can start at a normal time.
— On the five freshmen:
They’ve been coachable and teachable. We need them to mature and grow up fast. Right now the biggest thing is they haven’t been consistent enough, and they know that. They’ve got to be consistent; they’ve got to grow up fast. We’ve got five of them; we’ve got a lot of new guys. We don’t have a long period of time for them to mature and grow up, so we’ve really challenged them with that.
— On the team’s cohesiveness:
There’s two parts to that equation: One is being close on the court; one is being close off the court. I think amazingly so and instructor (John) McGuire of the SEAL Team said to me he couldn’t believe from the first time this summer and the second time this fall how much more guys communicated. Off the court, we’re more advanced than on the court. Am I concerned about that? You’re always concerned about that but not overly because we haven’t practiced back-to-back days at all. To build that closeness on the court, I think is going to take some time.
— On excitement youth has brought:
We’re excited around here all the time. We love being here; we love working with our guys. We have a positive environment, and we talk about that with our players. That was the same last year when we were one of the older teams, and it’s the same this year as a younger team.
— On impact of last season’s team with the progress of the program:
This team is kind of on Ground-Level 1 with this particular team. Our program has generated a lot of excitement because those guys laid that foundation down on concrete. The way they handled themselves, the way they responded to adversity, the way that they battled and fought really set a great precedent for what we’re about and how we want to do things. The fact that we’ve got four guys that were a part of that is huge. They know that, they know what resiliency can do for you, they know how to respond to adversity the right way, and I owe those guys, as I said at the banquet, there’s not anything I can do to repay those guys; I’m forever grateful to those seniors.
— On Nnanna Egwu replicating last offseason and this offseason:
Not necessarily on the shooting part. Nnanna’s one of those guys, when you give him something, he really locks in on it, and what he really locked in on was his body, his strength, his conditioning, his weight, his body fat. When you give that kid something, he’s usually going to knock it out of the park, and that’s what he did. He went to over 250-plus, he lost body fat while he was doing it, he changed his nutritional habits. He’s really done a great job, and he’s much physically stronger in his lower body and upper body.