Tonight marks the first time the Illini basketball team is really allowed to practice with new head coach John Groce, save for a few small meetings here and there throughout the summer and fall. Usually this is marked by a raucous Midnight Madness event that once featured the world’s largest outdoor hoops practice in 2008, but I haven’t heard much buzz about anything going on tonight.
Regardless of whether or not there will be fanfare, the Illini will start practice tonight, which means basketball season is almost upon us! This also means it’s time for Coach Groce to get out there and speak to the press. In a couple weeks he’ll head to Chicago for the Big Ten Basketball Media Day, and on Wednesday he warmed up with the local crowd, first.
Since practices really haven’t begun, Coach Groce didn’t have too much to say. He reported that some guys have been working hard (didn’t specify) and that the seniors are hungry and ready to play. He also lumped Tracy Abrams in with the seniors as a leader, even though he is just going into his soph year. But as the point guard and probably main ballhandler on the team, I’m fine with him taking a leadership role.
The Illini have had some leadership troubles in the last, oh, 5 or 6 years, so there are a lot of questions about who will be captain. Groce said that he prefers the players and coaches vote together on the captain, in order to pick the right person for the job. Not only is it someone who can lead, but someone that the team will want to follow. “You can say you’re a leader, but if no one is following you you’re not a leader,” said Groce.
One of the first questions from the crowd was of course about filling the void left behind by Meyers Leonard heading to the NBA last year after his sophomore year, and Groce didn’t deny that those are big shoes to fill. His response was that a number of guys will be taking his place. Groce appears to have a soft spot for Nnanna Egwu, who is the “type of guy that will give you 13 pushups when you ask for 10.”
It looks like Ibby Djimde, Egwu and maybe even Mike Shaw will fill in, as well as senior transfer Sam McLaurin, who will be bringing versatility and the ability to play the 4 and the 5. Oh, and I guess Egwu has a super secret shot he’s been hiding, because recently he was able to make 73 out of 100 3′s.
Groce sang the praises of Nnanna Egwu; Photo by Cary Frye
Coach Groce plans to continue the Matto Awards, and he said it looks like a number of guys on the team will be vying for the top score. When asked about guys like Devin Langford (who ended up redshirting last year), Shaw and Myke Henry (players who didn’t get a lot of playing time last season), Groce made a somewhat sweeping statement that they’re all playing hard and doing better. Although, he has yet to watch everyone practice just together. Groce stated he’d like to play 9 guys a game, but he is honest with the guys about playing time. I remember another guy mentioning 9 or 10 guys in a game recently, and that didn’t quite pan out.
Stay tuned for a quick Getting to Know the New Guys segment, as there are just 2 transfers (Sam McLauirn and Rayvonte Rice) and a “preferred” walk-on (Mike LaTulip) joining the team for the season. There is still one open schollie, but it seems doubtful that it will be filled this year. Groce did comment that having the veterans on the team is going to be a good thing, because they have a lot of experience playing on the big stage, unlike some of the younger guys that didn’t get a lot of minutes last year. With 6 newbies and a nervous coach last year, it was hard to get a lot of playing time.
Like Groce, I don’t really know what to expect from this year, though I do hope it’s better than what’s going on over in Memorial Stadium. Groce commented that he and Coach Beckman are friends, but if neither team does well maybe they won’t stay friends for long.
Ballhandling is a key focus for Groce, which is extremely important for this team (I’m looking at you BP). With Abrams as the only PG, others are going to need to step up. Though Groce likes a fast-paced game, he did say that might not quite work for the current roster, especially with four seniors.
I will be in attendance when Groce comes to Chicago, and it will be nice to hear his thoughts after a couple of weeks of practice.The Orange and Blue Scrimmage will be on Oct. 22, and the first exhibition will take place against Lewis on Oct. 27.