Been There, Done That

It's fine to talk about all the new guys John Groce has in play for next season. Just don't forget those experienced vets.

CHAMPAIGN — Shiny new toys always generate excitement.  

That fact has Illinois fans revved for next season, with months to consider the potential boost from the additions of transfers Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul and freshmen Leron Black and Michael Finke.  

John Groce says he's pumped as well.  

The now-eligibles and young-fresh-faces compose much of Groce's deepest and most complete roster of his Illinois tenure.  

Another important group? Three seniors with plenty of experience and inside-out knowledge of the Groce way. Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu aren't packaged in pretty wrapping paper ready to be ripped open like the newbies.  

That's why there's isn't as much talk about them, but the trio shouldn't be any less exciting to think about. Nor does it take away from their importance.  

Rice was named the team's Most Outstanding Player in 2013-14 after he averaged 15.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.  

Speaking at his end-of-season press conference, Groce said Rice needs to address his mid-range game in the offseason. That will help make him a more complete offense player.  

"Ray had a good finish game," Groce said. "Ray got better shooting the ball from deep. I think continuing to work that area (mid-range), I think will be important for him."  

Abrams will encounter crowded territory in 2014-15 compared to last season. He and Jaylon Tate were essentially the only point guards on the team last season. Now Starks and Cosby join the battle for minutes at the 1. Still, it will be hard to keep Abrams, known as the Bulldog for his tough mentality, off the court in his final season.  

He's the Illini's active leader with 83 career starts and 856 points. Abrams might not be a true point guard and he's probably not the ideal guy to spark Groce's preferred offense. That didn't stop him from being a player Groce leaned on heavily in his first two seasons. "Obviously Tracy is wired to score and has learned the position and has continued to get better at the position," Groce said.  

Abrams shooting percentages went down from his sophomore campaign to his junior season. His numbers: 39.4% on field goals to 33.3%, 27.2% on 3-pointers to 27%. Groce wants those numbers to improve, as well as continued progression with running the team.  

"I would say the biggest thing is continuing to make others better," Groce said. "We've talked to him a lot about that. The other thing I think is shooting. We'd like to see his shooting percentages both from two and three be more efficient. I know he's going to work really hard with that."  

And then there's Egwu, the 6-11 defensive and rebounding leader. Groce says Egwu might be the best defender he's ever coached. That was helped during the last two off-seasons, as the staff worked with Egwu to put on weight. Now weighing in at more than 250 pounds, Groce wants his forward to polish his skills in the paint and, as with the others, work on his shooting.  

"I just think continuing his skill level, whether it's in the low or long post, (and) shooting, I don't want to neglect his shooting," Groce said. "I think last year we worked so hard on some of the other things. I think one of the best things he does, for his size, he can shoot the ball. We need to probably get more of that with some of our workout with him."  

While it's fun to contemplate Cosby's shooting, Starks' playmaking and Black's position, don't forget those vets. They're far from a finished product and are just as significant in the roster upgrade, even if they're not shiny and new.  

"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."  

As for who will make those sacrifices, it not hard to figure who will do whatever it takes to win. Egwu and Abrams have toiled for two coaches, in the NIT and NCAA Tournaments and missed the postseason completely while at Illinois. Rice returned home after two seasons at Drake and had to sit out a year, one of the hardest things he's ever done according to him. Like Groce has said in the past — seniors die hard.

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