CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – John Groce was starting over from scratch a year ago: New town, new school and a new team. A year later and still coaching basketball at Illinois, Groce finds himself building from the ground up again.
The recently-hired Illini coach was just sitting down with his new players last April, sizing them up after a disastrous collapse cost Bruce Weber his job. That all turned out pretty well for Groce. Those players went 23-13, made the NCAA tournament and beat Colorado in their opener before losing to Miami.
"The momentum and the buzz and excitement around our program right now is not something I take for granted," Groce said Tuesday. "We're certainly headed in the right direction."
Wherever the Illini are headed, they'll be doing it with a bunch of new faces. This season's team was old by college standards: seniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson started; Tyler Griffey, another senior, started a few games and played regularly off the bench; and redshirt junior Joseph Bertrand was often the first reserve to check into the game.
Illinois will welcome five freshmen in power forward Austin Colbert, shooting guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, point guard Jaylon Tate and center Maverick Morgan.
At least a couple of them will have to contribute.
Spring practices that started this week included just six players — only five on scholarship — after forwards Mike Shaw, Ibby Djmide and Devin Langford were all given permission to transfer.
Groce said he will almost certainly use at least one of the three scholarships their departures made available to add a player for next season.
"We have three to give — what are the chances that I'll use at least one of them this spring? Very strong," he said.
It could be a graduate student, like center Sam McLaurin on this season's team or guard Sam Maniscalco a year earlier. One key addition is already here. Rayvonte Rice, a guard who grew up in Champaign, transferred from Drake and sat out this season.
Groce calls Rice a tough, motivated player, one who the coach makes sound a little like the departing Richardson — a versatile shooter, rebounder and defender.
"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," he said.
Big improvement from center Nnanna Egwu — a full-time starter this season as a sophomore — will be a key, Groce said. The 6-11, 235-pound Egwu averaged 6.5 points and just short of five rebounds playing against often bigger, more experienced opponents.
"I think he can take another jump, especially with his body," Groce said. "I think strength and conditioning is very important with Nnanna."
And Groce is looking for more from point guard Tracy Abrams, another sophomore who started almost every game this season. Abrams scored 10.6 points a game and led the team with 121 assists — 3.4 a game. That put Abrams ninth in the Big Ten, well back in the lower half of the conference's point guards. But Groce has pointed out that Abrams is still learning how to play the position.
"I thought he really started to develop in some of the things we need him to do," Groce said.
When Groce took over, last season's long slump and the players' inability to stop it created questions about how tough the Illini were, and about whether they might carry a hangover into his first season in charge.
The team's strong finish might indicate that Groce, though he has a number of holes to fill, has moved a long way toward creating the kind of tough culture he says carries over from one group of players to the next.
"I think we've made a lot of strides with the culture piece," he said. "I'm hoping those guys do show the freshmen the way in a lot of areas."
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidmercerap