BY CHAD DARE
Illinois men’s basketball John Groce describes the start of the 2013-14 men’s basketball season as “fun and challenging.’’
It’s that way for the second-year coach of the Fighting Illini because he has a team with five freshmen and four transfers.
“This is a research project that put on everyone, find a coach that has nine new, fresh faces,’’ said Groce during the team’s annual media day on campus. “It’s exciting and fun, but it’s also challenging.
“The goal, as we started to get together, was to become closer both on and off the court. I think we’ve come a long way with what we did in the summer and so far in the fall.’’
Not only does Groce have a number of new faces, but Illinois returns just three players that played significant minutes on last year’s team that went 23-13 reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Senior guard Joseph Bertrand, along with junior guard Tracy Abrams and junior forward Nnanna Egwu combined for just under 25 points a game a year ago.
“It’s a little different, not having those guys around,’’ said Bertrand, referring to Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, who were a part of his recruiting class and his teammates for the past four years. Those three combined for 36 points and 12 rebounds a game for Illinois
“I have a lot of new teammates,’’ Bertrand said. “I’ve adjusted to the change.’’
And how about the five freshmen?
“They are really talented, they are really learning the system,’’ he said.
In addition to three players, that had major roles a year ago, the Illini also have some experience in the program with sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip and Rayvonte Rice, the former Champaign Centennial standout sat out last year after transferring for Drake.
“We are relying on those five guys to help us teach every day how we do things,’’ Groce said. “I told those guys the other day — if we have a bad practice, it first and foremost on me, and secondly, it’s on you.’’
Abrams, who has started 51 games in his Illini career, knows this group will be looking to him to be a leader, and he is ready for that role.
“We’ve gotten a chance to bond and build. We went through some adversity together,’’ said Abrams, referring to the Navy Seal program that the Illini completed during the offseason. “We’ve been focusing on the communication. I really feel the Navy Seal training helped us out with the team aspect. You have to trust the guys that you will play with.’’
Groce pointed out that his players had deal with a lot of stuff that made them uncomfortable and through it, they developed a new mantra for this year.
The E1H on their bracelets sums up their training program.
“At the start of each day, our instructor would ask us. What does it take to win? And the group would respond, very loudly, every body. That’s the E,’’ Groce said. “Then, he would ask, how many people does it take to screw it up? 1. That’s the 1. Finally, what do you do when a teammate’s confused? You help them. That’s the H.’’
While his team is making positive steps towards it season opener on Nov. 8 against Alabama State, Groce is looking for more.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,’’ he said. “The trust happens over time.’’
Illinois will host its Orange & Blue scrimmage at 7 p.m. next Thursday at the State Farm Center.