Groce learning about Illini with season month away
CHAMPAIGN -- With just a few weeks until the season begins, Illinois John Groce doesn't know how much of the up-tempo basketball he says is his trademark will work for his new team.
"That remains to be seen," Groce said during the team's media day Wednesday. "We're going to get some information this weekend as we practice back-to-back-to-back days as a team for the first time."
With a couple of additions, the roster Groce is working with is essentially the same one Bruce Weber coached to a 17-15 finish last season, averaging 65 points a game, before he was fired. Well, the same minus athletic 7-1 center Meyers Leonard, who left two years early for the NBA.
NCAA rules have limited Illinois to just a handful of practices since early summer, but with the Nov. 9 opener against Colgate now less than a month away the pace is quickly pick up for the Illini.
There's probably more Groce doesn't know about his new team right now than he knows.
He added transfer Sam McLaurin, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward from Coastal Carolina, to help ease some of the loss of Leonard. But Groce says McLaurin is a good enough athlete to spend significant time outside the paint, and the coach doesn't yet know how much of Leonard's 32 minutes and 8.2 rebounds a game he'll be able to make up.
"Obviously when you lose a player the caliber of Meyers at the juncture that we did we have to replace him by committee," Groce said, noting that sophomore big man Nnanna Egwu and others will be part of that rotation.
Groce's biggest unknown -- and he says his biggest concern -- right now is ball handling.
His ideal up-tempo offense, he says, is built on the abilities of his ball handlers and how well they can move and think fast. Players have said Groce has used a 24-second shot-clock rule in pickup games, cutting 11 seconds off the NCAA's shot clock, to pick up the pace.
Groce used his fast-paced style to get Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season.
"We want to wear you out with a 94-foot game. That's me. That's who I am," he told reporters.
Senior shooting guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will help, but the pressure will fall squarely on sophomore Tracy Abrams.
"I think Tracy wants to be a lead guard -- that's half the battle," Groce said. "But there's more to being a lead guard than being 6-foot-1. Do you understand time and score? Do you make guys better? Do you understand who has the hot hand?"
Abrams had his moments as a freshman. He started 19 games and played in all 32, averaging 21 minutes and 4.3 points.
But there were only a handful of games in which Abrams, in spurts, showed what Groce said he's looking for from his point guard. That likely means Paul and Richardson will still be called on.
"I think those other guys are going to have certainly some responsibilities and take some of the burden," Groce said.
Weber's teams, and many of the players Groce has inherited, were regularly criticized for lacking grit and the ability to finish games -- nice kids who were short on leadership and toughness.
Groce said that given how little time he's had on the court with his players, he's still looking for leaders.
He wouldn't, though, talk Wednesday about any of their past shortcomings. "I'm not going to get into what happened in the past," he said -- and described his team in ways that Weber often did.
"I think their buy-in's been good, their effort's been good," he said. "They've been coachable, they've been teachable, they've been great off the court, they've been great in the classroom."