Loren Tate: Versatility key for Groce's Illini

Loren Tate: Versatility key for Groce's Illini

Tom Crean doesn’t have to think when he sends Yogi Ferrell onto the court. Yogi is Indiana’s point guard. He’s Mr. Setup Man. No questions asked.

Nor are there any uncertainties when Michigan’s John Beilein dispatches Mitch McGary. The 6-foot-10 aircraft carrier looks like a center, swims like a center and quacks like a center. He is a center.

Those two Big Ten sophomores make it easy for their coaches. They are naturals at the most important basketball positions ... most important because, while jump-shooting wings abound, point guards and centers are scarce.

Fact is, many college teams will toss out starting lineups this season without a natural at either position. And one of those is Illinois. From Rayvonte Rice to Malcolm Hill, from Nnanna Egwu to Tracy Abrams, Illini coach John Groce is dealing with versatility that he must mold into the right slots. It’s easier when you are blessed with specialists.

1 for the money
Ahmad Starks has point characteristics, and that’s why Groce wanted him to bolster the 1, a position Abrams still is working to master. The NCAA ruled that Starks can’t play until next season.

As for Egwu, Groce’s defense benefits from the fact that the agile junior can switch against rival guards on ball screens. He’s that mobile. But that’s the trait of a 4, as is his tendency to shoot 15-footers. Egwu is encouraged to become an effective post-up center, and his added girth (250 pounds) could help in that category.

And then there’s the culture of the game. Other than point guard, every player seemingly wants to be called one number less. Myke Henry wanted to be a 3 and brooded when he was thrust into the 4 slot. He left Illinois for DePaul.

Every 5 wants to be a 4, and every 4 wants to be a 3. I am chastised for calling Curie senior Cliff Alexander a 5 because he prefers to be known as a 4, but the fact is the 6-9 prospect looks like a 5, swims like a 5 and quacks like a 5.
OK, you’re right, Cliff is a 4, and Simeon Rice was a linebacker. I get it.

Moving pieces
So how is Groce treating this delicate coaching situation? Here’s his explanation:
“It’s a delicate balance. We have a lot of new guys with interchangeable parts, so we have to decide how many positions we want to teach them. For the older guys, we err on the side of teaching them multiple positions. We start the younger ones at a single position with the idea of teaching them some secondary positions as they graduate from the one they’re learning.

“We have one of those teams where we could be very versatile and could use several multiple-position guys.”

The one pure center is freshman Maverick Morgan, but the need for depth has influenced Groce to give a natural 4, Austin Colbert (6-9, 210), work at the position. The backup center will be the one who’s best at defending the post in Egwu’s absence.

Practice makes perfect
Tackling this challenge, Groce said:

“Every year we put in a lot of thought into practice and map out what we need to cover and by what time. We decide what we need for the Orange-Blue game (Thursday) or the first exhibition game. I’d say 80 or 90 percent of the time I’ve stuck to the plan with some wrinkles and adaptations. But this year has been interesting. I put the brakes on, and I’ve whacked off much of the practice plan because I don’t think we’re ready.

“What I don’t want to do is be the master of nothing. So we have to learn at a certain level, and we need to graduate from kindergarten before first grade, and then the first grade before we get to second. You can’t skip steps. When you do, you are cheating the team and taking shortcuts. Until guys know certain things, we’re not going to move on.

“Does that put us in a position where we’re not as well versed in areas prior to the Orange and Blue Scrimmage or McKendree? Yeah, maybe. We’ll have to figure it out. That’s been the biggest challenge. You have to be adaptable with this many (nine) fresh faces.”

‘A grown man’
Groce said Rice has the skills to play four positions, two of which he concentrated on during his redshirt season.

“I like to do that when guys are sitting out,” Groce said. “I wanted Ray to make mistakes then and figure it out by the time he is eligible, and then he has two positions that he has come close to mastering. He can guard multiple positions. His gift is that he is very versatile.”

Three years behind Rice, and not nearly as physical, Hill is roughly as versatile in a different way.

“Malcolm won’t be 18 until the end of October, so he’s very young and taking baby steps,” Groce said. “Ray is a grown man, literally. I told the guys from the beginning, I’m not going to treat everybody equally. I’ll be fair but each one is different, and I have to figure what I have to do to motivate them.

“Malcolm is different from Ray mentally and physically. We’ll bring him along. He is really talented. I talk about guys being empty, even or extra, and Malcolm is an extra guy. He made 30,000 shots this summer. He’ll do whatever it takes, and he’s going to be a really good player as long as he keeps working hard.”

Groce said he’d like to have as many as 10 players in the rotation but emphasized that the players will determine that.

“Using more players allows us to play faster and more aggressively. They’ll be graded out, and if I can count on them, they’ll play.”

Taking ownership
I nearly cheered when Groce responded to a comment about nine members of this team being “his players” because he recruited them. This created the inference that last season’s players weren’t his.

“I can’t stand it when people say that,” he said. “The guys who played for me last year are my guys. Once I coach them, they’re my guys whether or not I recruited them. I hate it when people phrase it that way. Last year’s players will be mine forever.”

I am quietly irritated every time I hear somebody say that Bruce Weber went 37-2 with Bill Self’s players. No, in 2005, Dee Brown and Deron Williams were Weber’s players. I don’t care who recruited them.

So if you don’t like my reaction, take it up with Groce.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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