Groce on schedule, freshmen and roster additions
CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois' Big Ten basketball schedule was released Thursday, one of the first things that stands out is the start of the 18-game campaign that starts with road dates at conference powers Michigan and Ohio State before coming home to State Farm Center to face Maryland. Then it's back on the road to Nebraska and Northwestern.
Get hoops assistant Dustin Ford's take on the schedule Saturday at 10:30 on WDWS.
That's a challenging quintet of games to start. But if you expected Illini coach John Groce to complain about the test set forth by the league, you don't know the third-year coach very well.
“It is what it is. You've got 18 games — nine home, nine away — they can put them where they want them but at the end of the day you've got to play all of them,” Groce said. “I worry about the things we can control.”
Perhaps there's reason for the non-panicked approach from the Illini perspective. After losing eight straight games during Big Ten play last season, Illinois won four of five road games to close the season. Groce's squad took pride in racking up “road kills.”
“I know our guys will be excited,” Groce said. “A lot of people will say 'You're going on the road.' Shoot, we played well on the road, you've got to play them at some point.”
The Illini practiced as a team for one hour per week during the eight-week summer session and Groce said freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke did a good job of picking things up quickly.
“Probably more so than what I thought they would have,” Groce said.
But they've only scratched the surface of all the different offensive and defensive concepts they've be hit with once the get back together in a team setting on Sept. 15.
During the eight summer hours, Illinois installed its transition offense and some defensive things.
“(Aaron Cosby) said Leron said 'Man, this is a lot of plays' and it's really just our transition offense,” Groce said. “Cos said 'We haven't even put in a play yet.' There will be a little bit of an adjustment period, but those guys pick things up pretty quickly.”
When classes begin at Illinois on Monday, the Illini will welcome a pair of walkons to the program. Eastern Illinois transfer Alex Austin got confirmation from the coaching staff that he could join the team last month. Last week, the Illini also accepted freshman Cameron Liss, a freshman from Glenbrook North.
Liss is a 6-foot-5 forward whom Illinois became aware of through a contact of assistant coach Paris Parham.
“We know a lot of people who know him in the area and speak very highly of him, not only as a player but as a person. He's a great student,” Groce said. “I really felt like he exemplified what we're about, otherwise we wouldn't have added him to the roster.”
Austin played two years at Eastern Illinois after prepping at Chicago's Mount Carmel High, alongside Illini senior Tracy Abrams. In Abrams, Groce had a reputable resource during his vetting process of Austin.
“ I trust Tracy and his judgement because Tracy knows about our culture and what the expectations will be academically here, off the court, on the court and what the standards are,” Groce said. “ He really did well academically at Eastern and the fact that he had played with Tracy and Tracy had a good pulse on him as a person was really, really helpful."