Groce Looks Back, Then Ahead

Coach John Groce gives his opinion on last season's effort, as well as reveals the offseason plan to prepare for 2014-15.

CHAMPAIGN - A few weeks after his team's season-ending loss at Clemson in the NIT, coach John Groce was ready to give his thoughts on "Year Two."

That's what he called last season's team, a group of grinders that finished 20-15 overall.

The time between the last game and this week gave Groce the chance to take the emotion out of his judgement. It allowed him to subjectively form an opinion.

His conclusion: "Clearly it wasn't even close that we were playing our best basketball in February and March."

Looking at it from every angle — stats, team chemistry, work ethic, intangibles — Groce was pleased with how his team bounced back from an eight-game losing streak to win six of it's last nine games.

"For our guys to take that disposition and continue to fight and play the way they did at the end I think speaks volumes of their character, of who they are," Groce said. "That gets me more excited to work with them."

That excitement led to a change of offseason plans.

"I became Uncle Scrooge a little bit, brought them (back) a week earlier them normal," Groce said. "We were all dying to get back to work."

Usually Groce gives the players two weeks off after the season concludes. This time he allotted only seven days for rest. Rules allow for two hours a week for coaches to work with each player.

"Believe me, we're going to max out the two hours," Groce said.

Also, the staff is currently in the process of meeting with each returning player, nearly two-thirds of the way through.

It's a where you were, where you are, where are you going kind of conversation.

But Groce takes in as much as he gives out.

"They're giving us feedback, on hey, I want them to evaluate how they think the strength and conditioning program operates," Groce said. "What do you think of our skill development program? How can we get better there? Anything we can do better with nutrition? How about academics? I'm asking them for feedback, too. It's their program. I don't want it to be one-way feedback."

Here's what we know…

Three players — Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul — are now eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in. Two freshmen, Leron Black and Michael Finke, will join in June.

That speaks to a drastically different roster for next season.

"Certainly going to have more depth," Groce said. "Competition is at a premium. Talked a lot about that with our guys. The concept of sacrificing, I think, becomes huge when you have that depth that we're going to have."

The newcomers and now-eligibles will mix in with a returning starting five and other reserves.

For rising sophomores like Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, as well as Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate and Austin Colbert, Groce is looking toward drastic changes due to a full year in the strength and conditioning program.

"We're really looking to start with our young guys, body transformation," he said. "We want more muscular definition, cardiovascular-wise being better, playing able to play harder longer, weight for some guys."

Of course there are specific individual skills those guys most hone in on, such as Morgan developing a go-to low post move. That kind of attention to detail is what Groce expects from each of his three returning senior starters.

For Tracy Abrams: "I would say the biggest thing is continuing to make others better," Groce said. "We've talked to him a lot about that."

On Nnanna Egwu: "I just think continuing his skill level, whether it's in the low or long post, shooting," Groce said. "I don't want to neglect his shooting."

And Rayvonte Rice: "Probably mid-range a little bit," Groce said. "Ray had a good finish game. Ray got better shooting the ball from deep. I think continuing to work that area, I think will be important for him."

It's a lot to think about, but it's what has to be done to prepare. Last season just ended. But when you've got a detailed schedule and are as goal-oriented as Groce and staff, there never seems to be enough time to get everything done before next season arrives.

Groce has a saying that he uses to convey the importance of the offseason regimen.

"Winter always asks what did you do last spring, summer and fall," Groce said. "We're really taking that to heart and feel like we've got to improve."


Illini Inquirer Top Stories