With 11 players returning, chemistry and continuity were noticeable as soon as players returned in early June.
“We can connect a little bit more, trust each other a little bit more,” senior guard Tracy Abrams said. “Last summer nobody knew one another. Even having a formal conversation, how are you supposed to trust each other in that short period of time? Now we know each other and trust each other.”
The familiarity has made Groce’s job easier. Or rather, it’s made his summer schedule more advanced than ever. This is his most experienced team since taking over the Illini, and Groce says it’s the deepest bunch he’s coached since his 2011-12 Ohio squad (29-8 overall record).
“I come with a plan two weeks in a row now thinking I’m just going to do a couple things and then 11 out of 13 guys know what we’re doing,” Groce said. “We’re able to get through those couple things and advance to something else. That’s been the first time we’ve been able to do that in three years.”
For the players, everything feels natural thanks to the comfortable feel with everybody in the locker room. That’s helped them turn from broad goals, like getting on the same page, to more precise pursuits.
“It’s now a matter of being a discipline to detail,” Abrams said. “I keep saying that. It’s just the truth. You think about last season that was the big difference between us being in the tournament and not being in the tournament.”
In sum, this summer has been productive because the team feels more complete.
“Knowing the people you’re doing this for and wanting to put out everything for them, just knowing the guys, you want to do that more,” senior guard Rayvonte Rice said. “It’s better from last year when you didn’t know the guy next to you. You want to give it your all for the guys you know. That’s something we emphasize every day.”