BY CHAD DARE
In just over a year, Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce has seen his program make major strides.
Groce, who was announced as the 17th coach in Fighting Illini history on March 29, 2012, looked back a little and ahead to his second season on Tuesday afternoon.
“About a year ago today, I was having individual player meetings in my office,’’ said Groce at a season-ending press conference in the Memorial Stadium press box. “It’s been a whirlwind in every sense. It’s been an amazing year. I obviously give a lot of credit to the players and our staff.
“I had about as much fun coaching this team as I’ve had coaching.’’
In his first season, Groce saw an Illinois team win its first 12 games, including capturing the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Then came six losses in a span of seven Big Ten Conference games with that skid ending as Illinois upset top-seeded Indiana, 74-72, on a last-second layup from Tyler Griffey.
That started the Illini push for the NCAA Tournament where they would beat Colorado before falling to Miami in the third round.
That was the final collegiate game for Illinois seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Griffey, Sam McLaurin and walk-on Kevin Berardini.
“We’re not satisfied,’’ Groce said. “We still have a long way to go. There is some gratification from having a chance to watch these guys grow up and be resilient.
“I’m thrilled that those guys had that opportunity and they were able to end their careers in a way that created a lot of special memories.’’
While Groce will remember those special moments, the next season started on Monday.
“The year is up, now it’s time to move forward,’’ he said. “We are centered on improvement — individually and as a team.
“I want them to have some ownership in it.’’
Assuming those leadership roles figures to be returning starters Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu along with redshirt senior-to-be Joseph Bertrand.
Those three along with junior-to-be Myke Henry, former Champaign Centennial standout Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake, and walk-on Mike LaTulip are the only players currently on campus.
“We will be adding new faces in June,’’ said Groce. “We will lock in on team stuff at that time.’’
Groce and his staff will have at least five freshmen coming in for next season.
Headlining that group are shooting guards Malcolm Hill, from Belleville, and Kendrick Nunn, from Chicago Simeon. Both of them were All-State selections in Class 4A and both are on most top-100 recruiting lists. Joining them will be forward Austin Colbert, point guard Jaylon Tate, from Chicago Simeon, and center Maverick Morgan.
The recruiting class is ranked among the top-25 in the nation.
“The momentum and buzz around our program right now is something I do not take for granted,’’ Groce said. “We are certainly headed in the right direction … we still have a long way to go.
“I love the direction that we are headed.’’
With only 10 players currently on scholarship for next season, Groce and his staff are currently looking at ways to fill the final three spots.
“We have three to give,’’ he said. “What are the chances that I will use at least one of them this spring?
Now that recruit could be a fifth-year senior like Sam McLaurin was this past year for Illinois, it could be a junior-college transfer like Desmond Lee from New Mexico Junior College, it could be transfer like Seton Hall’s Aaron Crosby or it could be another high school senior.
While Abrams and Egwu figure to be integral parts of next year’s Fighting Illini, Groce also believes that Rice, a former all-stater from Centennial, will also be a key contributor because of his ability to shoot, rebound and defend.
“Guys that have that type of makeup — on a given night maybe his shot’s not going, but he can get you on the glass and he’s a dominant defender out there,” Groce said.