BY JIM COTTER
You can call John Groce’s first Illini basketball team a work in progress.
Groce met the media for the first time as head coach of the Illini on Wednesday at the team’s media day on the University of Illinois campus.
He inherits a team that lost two players off last year’s 17-15 squad — the main one being center Meyers Leonard, leaving a gaping hole at the center position.
“Any time you lose a player with the caliber of a Meyers Leonard, you have to replace him by committee, and the addition of Sam (McLaurin), a fifth-year senior from Coastal Carolina, will help to bridge that gap, along with sophomores Nnanna Egwu and Ibby Djimde”, Groce said.
The Illini faltered down the stretch in 2012, losing nine of their final 10 games, which led to the firing of Bruce Weber. That team began to lose confidence as the season wore on, and that became more evident as each loss layered on the one before it.
Groce brings a renewed attitude and a strong work ethic to Illinois. Groce has an up-tempo style of basketball that he is bringing to Champaign, and likes to play a style that will wear teams down with a 94-foot game.
“A lot of the guys played in a lot of games last season, but only Tyler (Griffey) really saw significant minutes on the court”, Groce said of his big men. “Nnanna, Ibby, Mike Shaw and even Myke Henry played at times last season, but none of them had any consistency on the court.”
Of course, one of Groce’s main concerns will be who will handle the ball, and that duty falls on sophomore Tracy Abrams, who became one of the leaders on the team last season.
However, Abrams won’t be the only one that will be shouldering the load. Seniors Brandon Paul and D. J. Richardson will also be asked to take control of the ball from time to time.
Abrams, who embraces the role of principal ball handler, thinks it will take quite a bit of effort to fit into that position.
“I just need to make the guys around me better and make good decisions, and win games,” Abrams said.
Paul, who will be one of four seniors on the team, will be looked upon as one of the floor leaders, a role that he knows that he is ready for.
“I need to lead by example for the younger players, and I have become more vocal, so that definitely will help in my becoming a leader,’’ Paul said.
The Illini officially begin practice on Friday, and will host the Orange and Blue Scrimmage on Monday, Oct. 22, which will be the first time that fans will be able to get a look at this year’s team.