CHAMPAIGN — When the Illinois basketball team gets together this week to go through four days of Navy SEAL training, John Groce expects the process to go much smoother than it did the same time a year ago when his Illini went through it for the first time.
With nine brand new faces among the 14 players on the roster last summer and another newcomer in Rayvonte Rice who had never played a game in an Illinois jersey, the first round of SEAL training in 2013 was less than pretty.
“We did it the second week of summer school last year and we had only been together as a group for eight days and it was like ‘Whoa!’ ” Groce said.
The SEAL training is a demanding physical regiment, but teamwork and trust both play as big a part in the exercises as anything else.
All those unfamiliar faces and personalities struggled with that aspect of it.
So at the end of the summer, once the team got more familiar with one another, the Illini went through it again.
“I felt like the second time we did it, guys knew each other,” Groce said. “We connected better.”
With 11 of the 13 players making up the roster returning for the upcoming season, Groce expects he will only have to invite Navy SEAL John McGuire and his crew to campus once to reap the benefits of the exercise.
If the team workouts, which began last week, to this point are any indication, one time is all they’ll need.
“We’re pretty connected so far; we’re much more further advanced than we were at this time last year, which we should be,” Groce said.
Progressing in the area of physical conditioning is an obvious benefit of the training, but it’s that team building that goes a long way in molding the Illini into the cohesive unit Groce expects to have once the season starts in November.
“What we really want to get out of it is communication, understanding that being discipline- and details-oriented affects performance,” Groce said. “(McGuire) is going to bring new things to the table and new ideas because he knows our personnel better, our team better, our personalities better. But I’m looking forward to the challenge and I fully expect us to be better in those leadership areas, those communication areas, the mental aspects than we were last year.”
With freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke being the lone newcomers to this year’s Illinois team, Groce and his staff have already been able to work at a more rapid rate this summer than their previous two summers at Illinois.
In their first year, all 14 players were new to their system and ideas. Last summer, only five of the 14 knew what was going on.
“(Tuesday) we were able to cover more things in the hour I had with them than at any time last summer because guys just knew stuff right away, they’ve heard this stuff, in some cases, for two years,” Groce said. “We’re able to get through things faster and a little bit better than what we did the first practice or the first workout of the last two summers because they knew. I thought that was really encouraging.”
In terms of the work to be done on the court, it’s no secret Groce wants to make significant strides on the offensive end.
Illinois ranked 11th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (64.2 points), shooting percentage (41.1 percent) and three-point shooting (31.7 percent).
“We’ve got to get more skilled. We’re going to work really hard this summer,” Groce said. “Defensively, that’s always going to be our thing. We’ve got to be consistent with that but we’re working on the consistency and details of some things offensively so we can flow better offensively, pass the ball better, understand all the little things on the offensive end to determine the quality of shot you get. Obviously we’ve got to improve our offensive efficiency next year. At the same time, we’ve got to be able to build on and maintain our defense. Our defense was plenty good enough last year to win against anybody. We’ve got to be better on the offensive end of the floor.”
Cosby thankful for China experience
Not long before he was to leave for China to participate with REACH USA on a basketball tour, Aaron Cosby approached Groce and told the coach he wasn’t sure if he should make the trip.
The Seton Hall transfer was apprehensive because he had never been out of the country, didn’t know the language and didn’t know any of his teammates.
Groce told him all those reasons were exactly why he should go.
After a positive experience playing nine games in 10 days, Cosby returned and thanked Groce for encouraging him to go.
During his year at the UI, in which he sat out to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, Cosby has grown on and off the court.
The trip to China helped.
“Obviously, he’s physically stronger, (and) he’s better than he was when he first got here. Mentally, he’s come a long way,” Groce said. “He’s matured in some areas. He’s still got some areas he’s working on, but I think he’s made a lot of improvement. He’s improved in the weight room, on the court, his maturity level. How he views things outside of himself, I think he’s grown in a lot of those areas.”