Newcomers Add Depth To UI Basketball

Introductions are over. New Fighting Illini basketball coach John Groce has made a strong early impression with fans and players, but now comes the hard part. He must take the team he inherited and turn it into a confident, competitive club while imposing his unique style on his team. Everyone wants him to win now, but patience is a virtue.

The Illinois basketball team suffered through a frustrating season last year and failed to make the NCAA tournament. John Groce was hired to rebuild the Illini into the type of elite program Illini Nation expects. He was asked the time frame required to turn things around, and he provided an analogy.

"I don't think you can put a number on that. I learned that at Ohio. To build the type of relationships we need with one another, it takes time.

"I give the example of the 212° rule. Water is being heated up to the point where you're trying to get it boil at 212°. At the time you're looking at it, between 0° and 211°, it doesn't look like there's any change at all in the water. Then all of a sudden, it gets to 212° and you've got steam.

"We're chipping away and grinding it out, taking our swings every day to get that thing where we've got steam. Usually when you're doing something like that, building a culture, you're taking three steps forward, a step backward, five steps forward, two steps backwards, another three steps backwards, six steps forward.

"So it depends on people. That's why it's so dynamic and hard to say, 'We've got our system in place and everybody bought into it. Our chemistry will be perfect in nine months.'"

Groce will continue to preach patience with Illini fans, with good reason.

"No question. It is what it is right now. We've got our team heading into year one. We are more caught up in the process. We'll let all the prognosticators, the predictors, the media do that. We can't get caught up in all that. If you do, you'll drive yourself crazy."

While no one can predict accurately how the upcoming season will proceed, Groce expects slow but steady development. He is leaving open all possibilities.

"You've got to worry about getting better every day. We understand what we need to do defensively and offensively, and from a connection-chemistry standpoint. And we understand where those things need to be for us to play competitive basketball at a high level.

"You've got to work every day to get to the point where you can do those things on a consistent basis. If you do that, you've got a chance to compete and win at a high level every time you take the floor.

"Until you do, you're probably going to be up and down. Right now, we've got to develop that. It's going to take some time, but we're going to get there."

Illini players Brandon Paul and Myke Henry suffered injuries this summer, setting back their skill development. Paul suffered a broken jaw when he ran into teammate Devin Langford during a pick-up game. His mouth has been wired shut, limiting his dietary options. Henry suffered a sprained ankle. Groce sees a bright side.

"The great thing for those guys is that it happened when it did. I feel blessed with that. Brandon is going to be out a few more weeks with a fractured jaw. Henry is a partial go now. He has the boot off, and the ankle looks good. The swelling is down, so he should probably be close to full go.

"Those are things that you can't control, freakish things that happened in open gym. Stuff happens, and you've got to deal with it. You can't have any excuses. We just want to get Brandon and Myke healthy.

"The good thing is, they can maybe watch film from our workouts, which will be good. Things happen for a reason, and we can't get totally caught up in stuff like that."

The 2012-2013 version of the Fighting Illini will depend heavily on returnees since there are no scholarship freshmen on the squad. But there are three newcomers worth mentioning, two of which can play this year.

Perhaps the most important edition is 6'-8" Sam McLaurin, a fifth year transfer from Coastal Carolina who is eligible immediately as he pursues a Master's degree.

"Sam McLaurin is a great addition for us," Groce states. "He's an older guy, and he gives us some depth in the front court that we needed. So he's going to be good from that perspective. And he's a guy that's willing to do some of the intangible things like defend and rebound and be physical, a lot of those things that equal winning that don't show up on the stat sheet."

Groce was asked if the athletic, strong McLaurin's body type and style of play fit what he wants for a front line Illini player.

"At two of the four guys we like to rotate up there, yes. In that four-man rotation we play up front, we'd like for them to be athletic and long, guys that can defend, switch ball screens, hedge ball screens, rebound, run, move. Sam has a lot of those qualities."

Walkon Mike LaTulip, a slender 6-footer with a tremendous shooting touch from the perimeter, is available as well. Will he be able to help this year?

"Mike LaTulip is a prolific shooter. He's making a lot of rookie mistakes right now in our team one hour workouts, but that's normal. He'll figure it out, and we're working with him to slow down a little bit.

"He's a really talented shooter and can get his shot off about any time he wants. He's a shot-maker, and you can never have enough of those."

With a shortage of point guards, will LaTulip get a shot there?

"He'll play it some for sure due to our lack of depth there. On our depth chart, he'll be learning that position as well as the two, which is sometimes hard.

"For freshmen, we usually teach them just one position to make it an easier transition. But he's a bright kid, and we are going to need him to do the very best he can to learn both, for our practices as well as for depth for our team. He'll be able to pick it up."

The Illini have also added Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice. The Champaign product will be ineligible this year but will practice with the team in anticipation of regaining eligibility for next season.

"I like Rayvonte a lot. I think he's going to be an important part of what we're going to do moving forward. I think he's really talented. We've got to get him in better shape and continue to develop this catch-and-shoot game.

When asked about pleasant surprises among the players he inherited, Groce singled out one for special praise.

"A lot of them have surprised me at times. The guy who has really had a good summer, and has been impressive in what we've done, is Joe Bertrand. He's been really good.

"I think he's got a chance to really excel within our style of play. We'll continue to get him, as well as our other guys, bought into what we're doing. Defensively will be the key for him; he's done some really good things offensively."

In the conclusion of this nine-part interview, Groce evaluates the upcoming schedule and talks about his long-term goals for the program.

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