Guess Who's Back?!

John Groce and his Illini basketball team met with the media for the first time Wednesday -- here are a few questions Groce & Company face heading into Year Two.

CHAMPAIGN - The jerseys are still orange, blue and white. That's about the only thing that feels the same about the Illinois basketball team heading into John Groce's second season guiding the program.

The Illini Street Jam gave a small taste a few weekends ago, but an official media session Wednesday made it feel more real – basketball is officially underway.

For the Illini, gone are four seniors, including leading scorers Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, and four others due to transfer.

The roster Groce now has to work with includes two transfers eligible to play in Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, three transfers who must sit until 2014-15 and five true freshmen.

With 10 scholarship players and only three contributors from the team that last season reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Groce made roster moves this offseason with both the present and future in mind.

Groce's recruiting effort in the 2014 class combined with last season's success has built up plenty of good will and momentum for the program. Here are five questions surrounding the team and this season…

1) Can Rayvonte Rice be one of the best in the Big Ten?

Like many local kids dreaming of hooping at the college level, Rice grew up idolizing Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. Rice, from nearby Centennial High School, was second-team All-Missouri Valley at Drake in 2011-12 before Groce brought him back home.

He was over 270 pounds when he arrived. Rice now weighs less than 230. The transformation has made Rice both more versatile and more explosive.

"Ray Rice obviously has been a poster child for the area of strength and conditioning with what he's done," Groce said. "Whether it be body fat or strength numbers or conditioning numbers."

Groce added the 6-foot-4 Rice can play positions 1 through 4 on the court, a needed boost for a roster that will surely try more than a few lineup combos.

"Coach tells me most of the time I'm versatile," Rice said. "I can finish in the lane and shoot. I'm just going to do whatever my team needs."

Is Rice ready to be a headlining player for a team with aspirations of reaching the NCAA Tournament? Is he good enough offensively and defensively to compete night in and night out in the Big Ten? Will, and if so how long, will it take for him to get comfortable in games after sitting out a season? Will he feel the pressure of playing for his hometown school?

These are questions Rice's play will answer.

2) How much better have Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu become?

The offseason goals were pretty clear for both of the juniors returning. While not exactly a true point, Abrams has manned the position since his freshman year and produced 10.6 points and 3.4 assists per game last season.

The Chicago kid shot just over 27 percent on treys, a mark that he set out to improve with work in the offseason. Just as important, Abrams began developing a stronger voice of leadership, a need created by the loss of long-time clear-cut leaders Paul and Richardson.

"Tracy's always been a leader, a natural-born leader," said senior Joe Bertrand. "He's helping out with that."

Egwu, meanwhile, needed to continue his quest for added weight and strength. He did that by gaining over 25 pounds and is now up over 250. Last season he averaged over six points and nearly five rebounds a game. Those are figures that should rise due to his work over the summer.

Egwu has developed his shooting tremendously since Groce got to Champaign. He spent this offseason furthering that while also honing in on his post moves.

"We'll make him a moving target," Groce said. "He'll play some in the low post, some in the high post. He has great touch and can really shoot the basketball."

Egwu made strides last season defensively and should continue to be one of the better stopping forces in the Big Ten.

"There's not very many guys that are 6-11, 252-pounds that can not train for a mile and run a 5:15 mile," Groce said. "He can switch ball screens, keep point guards in front. I mean, he's an elite-level defender with his feet. We've got to make sure he keeps his hands off people."

3) Who helps handle the ball?

News of the NCAA turning down Ahmad Starks' hardship waiver request hurt on every level. Starks would have given Groce a 3-point shooter and a quick and speedy playmaker to help Abrams initiate the offense from the perimeter.

Instead, Starks must sit until next season and Groce has to figure out what to do at the guard spots. Abrams can't play the point the whole game and somebody has to start at the 2.

Groce has what he has. At the point, walk-on Mike LaTulip and freshman Jaylon Tate will compete for the backup spot. LaTulip is a favorite of both the fans and the locker room, a funny character with a serious knack for shooting 3s. Tate was a pure, pass-first point known for unselfish play and a tough mentality in high school.

Rice will help out some at many positions. So too will senior Joe Bertrand. Still, freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill have a prime opportunity for major minutes at the off guard spot. To describe each in one word, Hill is a scorer and Nunn is a winner. Both players have tremendous potential.

When asked which, if any, of the freshmen were standing out to this point in practice, Groce said: "Depends on the day. Freshmen are inconsistent right now, and they know that. I love all of them, but they're inconsistent right now and they know that. One day one guy stands out more than another and then the next day maybe a guy takes a step backwards and then two steps forwards, three back and then he has a big-time practice and takes four forward."

Groce then used one of his favorite lines from one of his favorite people to quote. "Pat Riley use to say he'd take consistency over greatness any day of the week. That's the battle we're fighting with younger guys. We're working really hard to understand that consistency piece."

4) How quickly will the team gel?

Hey, most of these players didn't arrive at Illinois until June. It's safe to say it will take some time for everybody to get use to everybody else and everything that comes with being on the team.

Understanding how to practice, keeping a positive mindset and developing team chemistry while also improving individually were but a few things the newcomers faced.

Groce anticipated these challenges. He set up two runs of Navy SEALS training this summer and has been flexible with his practice tempo and schedule.

Last season the guys wore wristbands that carried the acronym TNT, toughness and together. This season's motto is E1H. "That comes from our Seal training," Groce said. "Our instructor would get up and say, ‘how many people does it take to win?' And everybody would answer loudly and clearly ‘everybody.' That's the E. How many people does it take to screw it up? One. That's the 1. What do you do when a teammate's confused? You help them. That's the H. So right now we're consumed with that and the process that will give us a chance to give us the results that they want and that we all want."

Still, there's only so much the coaching staff can do. The players themselves have to be accountable. After all, it's their team and as Groce likes to say – "Players play players." He's leaning on Abrams, Egwu, Rice, Bertrand and LaTulip, the returning players, to help demonstrate what he expects on a daily basis.

"I told those guys the other day if we have a bad practice that's first and foremost on me and secondly it's on you, so we better figure it out together," Groce said. "They really for the most part answered the bell very strongly there. I'm really encouraged by that.

"We have to understand that every day everything is important. Do we have a full grasp of that right now? No, but we're a lot better than we were in the summer."

5) How do the players deal with the buzz?

Haven't you heard? Quentin Snider, Leron Black and Michael Finke are coming to Illinois. And Cliff Alexander might, too. The 2015 class of kids includes many major, high-level, blue-chip, five-star that like the Illini and Groce, too. Transfer Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be eligible next season. Rice, Abrams and Egwu will be seniors. Next season could be special.

But it's not next season. Not yet. While it is clear Groce has the program clicked into a track headed for bigger and better things, 2013-14 is an important piece to the process.

Groce acknowledged the momentum his program has established, but he's working to combat any looking ahead past the given tasks at hand.

"You know how young guys are," Groce said. "I remember when I was 18. First I had more hair and secondly you have an air of invincibility that you think that you have about yourself and your surroundings. Whether that's being a foolish teenager like my mother use to call it or whatever you want to call it, maybe not a total sense of reality. I tell our guys one of the head coach's jobs is to define reality for them. We're trying to do that and put them really under adverse situations. Those guys, we have a group right now that's trying to figure things out."


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