The first couple weeks of practice, how are these different than practices in November and December?
Groce: “Well, they’re really different, regardless of season, Jeremy. It’s definitely different right now because (Tuesday was) practice 25 for us because of the European trip and the stuff we’re allowed to do post-September 15th and the fall training camp. We’re further along than we would be normally. So really, what that means is we’ve scrimmaged more five-on-five our first weekend of practice -- which was this practice -- and even (Tuesday) than we probably would normally or we would be ready for this time of year. That’s been a big difference.
“But, in general, I’d say between now and November 1 when we play our first scrimmage (closed vs. Xavier), we probably do, generally speaking, a little bit more drill work and break down. We’ll still do some of those things when we start playing games. But the majority of what we start really getting into when we start playing games is mostly five-on-five.”
Every season has its unique challenges. What are the unique challenges facing the team and the staff this year compared to the last couple years?
Groce: “Well, I think we’re older, which is a good thing. I think the challenge right now is just us getting healthy. Obviously, we know that Tracy (Abrams) is out for the season with the unfortunate deal there with the Achilles. But we’ve even had recently some guys with some knick-knacks, some guys who were out for a practice or two or tendinitis here or different things there. Nothing lingering.
"We are excited obviously that we get J Cole back here at some point once he gets his conditioning at a certain level and we increase the strength of the calf muscle and the size of it. He’ll be cleared here sooner than later. It’s not necessarily a timeline thing. It’s more like when his body is ready. We don’t anticipate that taking too terribly long, which is a good thing. We’ve just had some other guys with like tendinitis or an ankle. That’s the thing that’s been challenging for us, really last year and this year. The most challenging thing I think has been the injury bug, a little bit.”
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn now are the unquestioned go-to guys on this team. Do they have to take it upon themselves to say, ‘This is our team and we’re going to lead’? Or is there anything you as a coaching staff can do to nudge them in that direction?
Groce: “For sure. Obviously, they’re our most experienced players. Both of those guys this fall, offensively, have been at a very, very high level. They’ve continued with that as we’ve continued our preseason practice. My standards for them on the defensive end are very high. They’re basically two-year starters who have been here for a while. I think both of them can be better defensively, certainly than they’ve played here early. I’m on them a little bit about that. I’m on them about being more vocal, serving their teammates, bringing others up to their level, creating a standard and level in our program that everyone’s aspiring to reach where they are.
“Are they there yet with those things and those intangible things? No. But I think for us to be the best team that we can be this season, we need them to not only be production guys for us. Because they will be, if the Lord blesses those guys with health then they’ll be production guys, there’s no question about it. They’re both really, really talented. They’ve both gotten better. They’ve gotten stronger. They’ve worked on their games. What I need them to do more at this point is to be more vocal, lead our team, show our team the way and do that consistently, both by vocal example and by non-verbal example with their body language, their attitude, their effort.”
I see in Malcolm that he has that little ‘killer’ instinct in him. It feels like he has that. What specific things do you need them to do though? Is it grabbing a guy in the huddle? Is it something off the court? Growing leaders has got to be one of the more difficult things to do as a coach.
Groce: “I think the first step and the hardest thing for kids that are 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old -- as crazy as that sounds -- is to think of all other guys on the team before themselves. That’s hard for any human being, let alone someone in that age range. Both those guys have played USA Basketball. Both of them were ranked this and that. Both of them are All-Big Ten caliber players. Both of them have had really good careers, two-year starters. People are telling them how great they are, so they can swallow all that if they wanted. We don’t want them to do that. We want them, I call it ‘eating last.’ It’s the same thing I used to talk to Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson about my first year. Those guys really bought into that. I need those two guys to understand it’s about everybody else but them -- and that’s hard. But that’s what we need from those guys, I think, to lead our team.”
Last year, Leron Black had an impact on the team, but he still looked like a freshman at times. That’s obviously a tough transition for a lot of players. As you look at him entering his sophomore year and you add fifth-year transfer center Mike Thorne, is there a new identity that you guys will have in the front court as opposed to the last few years with Nnanna? He did so much defensively for you but that obviously came with some offensive struggles.
Groce: “Yeah, we’re like the 180 of that now. Thorne is a really gifted offensive low-post scorer. Black is maybe as improved as anyone on our team. He had three double-doubles in Europe. He eats rebounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He just has a gift to do that. He’s gotten stronger. He’s more skilled. He understands things better. He’s really improved and really, really worked at it.
“Finke has gotten a lot better. Finke poses a lot of problems because he has the skill level of a guard at his size. So he can do a lot of different thing. We can play Hill there (at the 4) a little bit. We can go four guards a little bit. We got Maverick Morgan, who I think Mav did not have the greatest of falls. But I think here since practice has started on Friday that he has been very, very solid. I think he’s done some good things at both ends of the floor. There’s no question our team in general has a much more paint production capability than it has combined probably in the first three years.”
You need freshmen to make an impact on this team, especially coming off your bench. with Jalen Coleman-Lands, Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams. Michael Finke is a redshirt freshmen as well. Does that have any similarities to two years ago when Malcolm, Kendrick, Mav, Austin Colbert and Jaylon Tate were all freshmen?
Groce: “Umm...yes and no. I do think the European trip has really helped D.J. and A.J. -- big time. Even Kendrick told those guys the other day, ‘Shoot, the first 10 games of my college career, there were games where I played single-digit minutes.’ Then obviously he figured things out. Those guys (Williams and Jordan) are at a little bit of an advantage over that class because they had the 10 days of European practices and they got a lot of reps in those games because J Cole was out, Tracy obviously had the injury and Khalid Lewis could not make trip. So there were a lot of opportunities for those guys to get minutes, valuable minutes, valuable reps. I think they’re a little bit further along in terms of the system than even that class was, which could be beneficial for us.”
Point guard is a popular topic among the Illini media and fan base. You have Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate, one of them a transfer and one of them a guy that’s been in the system. How is that shaking out so far? Is Khalid as a fifth-year guy pushing Jaylon to become a better point guard?
Groce: “Yeah, he’s gotten a lot better, and Khalid’s been a great addition. I love Khalid’s competitive toughness. He’s so tough. He loves competition. He loves to win drills. He doesn’t like to lose anything. He’s been great. I think he’s been great for Jaylon and vice versa. Those guys have really done a good job of playing the position here for us early. And we’ve put Malcolm there at times. We’ve put D.J. Williams there. This team has more versatility, especially offensively, than any of the teams I’ve coached maybe to this junction of my career, including the Ohio teams. So there are a lot of our guys who play multiple positions. There’s a lot of different lineups we can play. I like that versatility. I think it’s really good for us long-term.”
You talked about this a little bit when you hired Darren Hertz on your staff as special assistant to the head coach. What impact has adding him and a guy like Adam Fletcher, your new strength and conditioning coach, had? Obviously you’ve had your assistant staff here the whole time but how have those quote-unquote outsiders impacted your program, even early on?
Groce: “That’s a great point, Jeremy, because they’ve brought fresh ideas like crazy. Fletch’s philosophy on conditioning is different than I’ve ever been around. I just let him do it. He had our guys in really good shape for the preseason. They’re getting stronger. Their nutrition is better than it ever has been. Their hydration is better than it ever has been. He’s done just a great job, and those guys know he’s done a great job. It’s very rare in this business that you can have a strength and conditioning coach of his level that played basketball. He’s played in postseason conference tournaments. He’s played in the NCAA Tournament. He’s won conference championships, a conference tournament championship. He’s played the 4/5, 5/4 in college so he’s played the game. He’s the first strength coach I’ve ever been around as an assistant or head coach that’s played college basketball. So I think that’s been a real benefit to us.
“Then Hertz has been great with different ideas. We’ve even changed some things with our style of play a little bit based on some of his ideas, as he’s witnessed. The European trip was a great thing, not only for our players but for our staff because we got to evaluate our system and what we want to change and what fits our personnel and what we need to adapt. Obviously, Darren’s had some real thoughts and ideas on those things. That’s been very, very good for us.”