CHAMPAIGN, Ill. | New head coach John Groce has taken over at Illinois at a tough time.
The Big Ten opens with five teams in the AP Top 25, including No. 1 Indiana. Illinois is essentially the same team that lost 12 of its last 14, minus its most talented player, center Meyers Leonard. And Groce said he won't be able to play the kind of fast-paced style he favors until he adds players who fit it, particularly ball handlers. That's a season or more away.
If nothing else, though, Groce said Illinois' players have taken to the changes he's made so far and are ready to hit the court for the Nov. 9 opener against Colgate after a season of frustration.
"The one thing that's exceeded even our expectations is how hungry they've been, how excited they have been, how hard they work, how much they're in the gym," he said. "You love going to practice and coaching this team because they're hungry."
Groce was hired in March to take over for Bruce Weber, who was fired after nine seasons.
Weber oversaw last season's collapse — from a team that was on top of the Big Ten after upsetting Ohio State to a 17-15 wreck that missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in five seasons.
Groce came to Illinois on the strength of an NCAA run at Ohio last season that included an upset win over Michigan and a tough overtime loss to North Carolina in the round of 16.
His team ran and had enough ball-handling ability to do so. And, Groce has said often, his players had a tough edge to them.
Groce freely admits that, in sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams and senior Brandon Paul, a shooter who will share the ball-handling duty, he doesn't yet have quite what he needs.
"We certainly want to play fast long term," he said, "(but) we don't want to try to ram a square peg into a round hole."
Abrams is closer to a true point guard than Paul. And he played in all 32 games last fall, starting 19.
Paul — the team's leading scorer last season with 14.7 points a game — is a natural outside shooter whose weakness has been his inconsistency. He torched Ohio State for 43 at home last January, but a month later with his team in free fall and looking for someone to save them, he put up just nine points in the return game at Columbus.
Paul, Groce said, has been asked to dedicate himself to becoming a better ball handler, asked to, as Groce put it, "make the sacrifice." But he's also been asked to be better night in and night out.
"I use the Pat Riley quote with him: 'Coaches will take consistency over greatness any day of the week,'" Groce said. "How do you do that? I think you do that by understanding every practice matters, every rep matters, every little thing that we do matters. That's how you become more consistent at what you do, and he's embraced that."
But players say Groce is asking almost everyone to dribble, to penetrate, to try to create.
Forward Tyler Griffey, another strong outside shooter, said he has been directed to play off the dribble — and not to worry if he takes open shots that miss. Griffey said so far he loves the quicker pace that the high-energy Groce stresses.
"We're just going to be getting up and down a lot," said Griffey, a senior. "Everything we do is at pace — going and getting water, going drill to drill."
The key piece Weber had that Groce lacks is Leonard. The athletic 7-1 center left after an up-and-down two years at Illinois, but had undeniable talent that convinced the Portland Trailblazers to make him a first-round pick.
He'll be replaced, Groce has said, by committee. That will include, among others, 6-8 Sam McLaurin, a grad-student transfer from Coastal Carolina, and 6-11 sophomore Nnanna Egwu.
Egwu, more than any other Illini player, has worked to get better ahead of this season, Groce said. But fans may be disappointed if they expect Illinois to park Egwu in the lane and watch him grab rebounds and make layups.
"It's not him," Groce said. "He's mobile, he's athletic. ... I think we're missing the boat if we just stick him down there and bang."
After two home games to open — Colgate and St. Francis — the Illini will be tested quickly in non-conference games against Gonzaga, Georgia Tech and the annual Braggin' Rights Game against Missouri. Big Ten play starts Jan. 2 at Purdue.