Illinois kicks off Friday against Alabama State at 7 p.m. in the State Farm Center. All through the offseason, into the fall and up to this point coach John Groce has answered questions about the massive makeover of his team heading into his second season in charge.
He's encouraged at this point.
"I like the progress that we've made," Groce said. "I do think that we're getting better. I think individual players are improving rapidly right before our eyes, which is a great thing. I think our team is getting better and starting to understand our system better."
Groce is working with nine new faces this season, four transfers and five freshmen. The dramatic overhaul of the roster has increased the responsibility for returnees Joe Bertrand, Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Ray Rice (who sat out last season) and Mike LaTulip.
Groce says he's pleased with the individual gains made by his returning players. But he wants to see more.
"I want them to talk," he said. "I've been beating that bandwagon since June. They've got to be more vocal. They've got to share more vocally. That's what I'm trying to get out of those guys more."
Two transfers, Rice and senior forward Jon Ekey, will make their official debuts Friday. Rice, the junior transfer from Drake, scored a team-high 16 points in only 21 minutes of action in the team's final exhibition.
"Obviously Ray gets it," Groce said.
Ekey is an expected starter and has drawn praise for his 3-point shooting, defense and rebounding.
"He's been doing this a long time, so he knows people's strengths and weaknesses," Egwu said of the Illinois State transfer. "The way he picked up our offense is amazing. If you watched him on film you'd think he'd played in this offense his whole life. He's smart. He understands what to do."
And as for those freshmen?
"We still have a long way to go with some of those other guys, but they care," Groce said. "They come up and watch film on their own. They care, now. I've said that all along. We've got great guys."
First-year players Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill figure to be prominent fixtures in the rotation this season. When asked, Groce first joked about how he views the best way to deal with growing pains.
"A lot of prayer," he said. "Nah, you do, it's a very delicate balance. You do have to let them play through mistakes."
For a team that returns only 36.1 percent of it's scoring, 36.7 percent of it's rebounding and 43.8 percent of it's assists, Groce agreed that this year's team might not have a set rotation or lineup.
"I think we're one of those teams that's gonna have to do it by committee," Groce said. "We are. That means guys being ready at the drop of a hat, in given games, in given four segments of the game, boom, they've got to be ready to execute their role. We've defined that for all those guys and everybody on the team knows everybody's role."
That's why Groce adopted the acronym E1H as this season's team motto. It stands for it takes everyone (to succeed), only one person to screw it up and help if somebody is struggling.
"I really felt like it was important watching this team we understand it's going to take everybody with this team," Groce said. "And I also feel like it just takes one guy to screw it up, you know. Everybody's got to embrace their role and be an All-Star in their role. I think our guys understand that."
With a roster full of still-learning players, Groce has stressed the importance of defense and rebounding. Regardless of what's happening on the offensive end, Groce says the effort shouldn't be affected in other areas. Above everything else, Groce repeated a line he used a few times last season. He told his players when things are good they'll feel like rockstars. When times get tough, they'll feel like scum. The goal is to keep the mindset somewhere in the middle. Always be steady and always push forward.
"I'm excited to go through the journey," Groce said. "We always talk about the score taking care of itself and getting caught up and wrapped up in the process and getting better everyday and trying to do the right things and trying to learn when we ding stuff up. None of us are perfect. I try to tell them all the time I'm not. So we're all trying to be life-long learners and find ways to get better. That process is fun. We love that. We love challenges. We love the process of getting better and then we kind of let the other stuff take care of itself. I'm really looking forward to the journey."