CHAMPAIGN – John Groce squinted into the sunlight shining in his eyes through a window at Illinois’ basketball media day, joking that he meant to have an assistant coach cut his already closely shorn hair on his bald head so the “glare would be even brighter.”
The setting sun on a fall day is nothing compared to the intensity of watchful eyes that will be cast upon his basketball program in less than a month.
While Illini fans are discouraged after missing out on two of the last three NCAA tournaments and the football team has done nothing to cure an overall damper on the athletic environment at Illinois, all attention in Champaign will be on Groce’s first team.
“It’s in the rearview mirror,” Groce said of last season. “It’s over. That’s not going to help us any. All we can do is learn from it and move on. The freight train is moving. Either jump on or get off.”
While expectations are low for this season’s Illini, who lost the 11th selection in the NBA draft in center Meyers Leonard, Groce isn’t letting the team duck his own expectations.
He handed out orange plastic bracelets that read “3-19-13 “ — the date of the NCAA tournament — and “TNT” — standing for toughness and togetherness.
Last season ended with an embarrassing thud. Illinois lost 12 of its final 14 games, was snubbed for postseason play and coach Bruce Weber lost his job. It’s a memory Groce does not harp on but that the players are intent to not repeat.
“Our goal this year is that that cannot happen again,” sophomore Nnanna Egwu said. “Obviously we’ve improved physically and talent-wise as a team. But mentally, we have to be better than last year. Once something goes wrong, have the correct mindset to keep driving. That’s how [Groce] coaches every day.
“We have a goal in mind. It’s kind of frustrating when people say ‘try to make it to the tournament.’ I feel like that should be a given. That should be something we should be doing. We should be focused on how far we’re going to make it in the tournament.”
While the team’s psyche has undergone a makeover, its style of play has been completely remodeled.
Groce’s system focuses on an uptempo pace and uses a multitude of players, up to 10 per game.
“We want to attack,” said Groce, who was hired from Ohio in the spring. “We want to be aggressive. We want the ball in the paint. We want to wear you out and make it a 90-foot game. That’s me. That’s what we’ve taught.”
To what extent he can employ that system this season, he said, remains to be seen.
“Are you going to be able to play as fast as you want to play?” he said “I’m not sure. We don’t want to ram a square peg into a round hole. We want to find that balance.””
Much of Illinois’ practices have concentrated on ballhandling. The Illini were near the bottom (ninth) of the Big Ten last season in turnover margin (minus-0.16).
Groce expects sophomore Tracy Abrams to have the ball in his hands much of the season, with help at point guard from senior Brandon Paul.