PRESS CLIPPINGS: Illini coach John Groce media day

Notes and quotes from John Groce's press conference Thursday for Illini basketball media day

The injury bug continues to bite the Illini. John Groce divulged that starting sophomore forward Leron Black will have surgery Friday to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee and will miss four to six weeks. The Illini start the season in five weeks with a Nov. 13 opener against North Florida at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield. The injury means "increased opportunities and reps for other guys," Groce said. "When that door opens for those guys, we want to sprint through that door and knock that door down. ...That's all you can do. Control what you can control."

Jaylon Tate has missed the past few practices with a concussion.

Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands is on track in his recovery to be ready by the season opener, "but that's as of today," Groce said. Groce said Coleman-Lands be "full-go contact" some time after Nov. 1. The team's first exhibition game is Nov. 8. The team's first regular-season game is Nov. 13. After sitting for four months with a stress fracture in his lower left leg -- Coleman-Lands said he was able to do some off-court work like upper-body lifting -- the team trainers are working to build up his conditioning and calf strength. "We're going to do what's right," Groce said. "If he's ready to go, which we anticipate, well before we play our first game, awesome. If he's not, am I going to play a guy that's hurt? No. I'm stating the obvious. Believe me, I wanted to play him yesterday. I want Black to play tomorrow. It just kind of is what it is with those guys. Do I believe he's on track to play clearly before or on the first home game date? No question. But, that's as of today. Body's are dynamic."

The team has a "next-man up philosophy," according to Groce. "If you look at the spring of 2014 versus the team we finished with in the spring of 2015, that was a grand total of 80 games missed," Groce said. "That's a lot. But our guys never had any excuses. They never took shortcuts. They did not complain. It was a next-man up philosophy. We have to have that now, obviously, as we've gone through a little bit of the injury bug now with this team."

The European trip gave the Illini a "head start," Groce said. With the 10 additional practices, four games and extra time together, "We learned a lot more about our team," Groce said. "We learned a lot more about individuals. I think it gave us a real jump start in a lot of different areas."

The standard for juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn "is through the ceiling," Groce said. The Illini coach said he needs the juniors to lead the team not only in production, but vocally and with positive body language. "Our job is to bust through that ceiling or those self-imposed thresholds we all put on each other and ourselves," Groce said. "I think what coaches do, the great ones, is find ways to get guys to do things that they thought maybe weren't possible. Right now, I'm expecting an awful lot out of those guys from a leadership perspective, from their intensity level that they bring to practice, what I expect from them on and off the court, all the way across the board."

The Illini don't have an elite individual defender like recently graduated senior Nnanna Egwu, an All-Big Ten Defensive Team member last season. Groce said defense has to be a bigger team effort this season. Senior Tracy Abrams told the team defense must remain the team's identity. "We have a couple guys who are very gifted defensively," Groce said, "but all in all it's going to have to be a team effort, a buy-in to that identity, a buy-in to that our toughness starts with rebounding and defending."

The fifth-year transfers experience helps Illinois, but both center Mike Thorne and point guard Khalid Lewis are still adapting to the team's terminology and system, especially Lewis who wasn't able to play with the team during its European trip. But Lewis "has caught up quickly," Groce said. "He's a competitive kid. He's a tough kid. He cares. He's worked very hard to learn and get a lot better through the fall training camp. I'm really excited about him. He's certainly exceeded my expectations, and a lot of it is because of his competitive toughness and his ability to learn very quickly." Groce said he recently has challenged Lewis to be more vocal, a trait he needs in that position -- even out of a newcomer. "I've already seen that because he's very naturally inclined to talk," Groce said, "which is a good thing."

Jaylon Tate "has improved in a lot of areas," Groce said. "He's stronger. He's added weight. I think he's a little bit mentally tougher, just being older and going through some wars. Maybe (in the past), there were times he demonstrated that and times he didn't. I think he's learned a lot in that regard. I think he has a great voice. It's hard to teach that. He's very vocal. He can pass and handle the ball." But what about his shooting? "I think he's gootten better there," Groce said. "People ask me a lot about that. It's certainly very noticeable during summer and fall. In terms of the confidence piece, I've always felt like as a player you see one go in during a game that makes a big difference mentally for a lot of guys. He's improved. Obviously, we're going to need both him an Khalid."

Michael Finke is a "completely different player" after redshirting. "He's getting better," Groce said of the redshirt freshman forward/center. "He's stronger. He weighs more. He's more skilled He's become an even better shooter. He can really pass. He poses match-up problems offensively, and is really working hard to become a better defender and impact the game on the backboard at his size."

Coleman-Lands is "as good of a shooter as I've recruited as a freshman coming in," Groce said, including Jon Diebler who Groce coached as an assistant at Ohio State. Groce talked in-depth about what Coleman-Lands add in my Q&A with him this week.

Freshmen Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams are a bit inconsistent, as most freshmen are. "Williams has had some good days," Groce said. "Jordan's had some good days. Both guys care at a really high level about being good. They want to be good, and they're quick learners. They have the ability to learn quickly. So they're getting better rapidly. ...Obviously, the goal is to get those guys to string more of those (good) days together, so that you have some consistency there."

Groce talked glowingly about this team's versatility. The team can play multiple styles. "We got guys that are learning multiple positions," Groce said. "We'll have the ability to play small, play big -- to give you even different looks within different positions." For instance, Mike Thorne gives the Illini a big, low-post option at the 5, but backup Michael Finke can give the team a more versatile inside-out threat at the position. Hill can play the 4 or the 3. Freshman D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan currently are playing the wing position, but Groce said both eventually will play multiple positions -- and that Williams may eventually be able to play five positions.

The team acronym on this year's team bracelet -- Groce famously used TNT for "Toughness 'N Togetherness" his first season at Illinois -- is LSCA: Loving, Serving, Caring and Acceptance. Groce denied that the acronym, which encourages loving, serving, caring and accepting each other, is not a reaction to the disappointment of last season's finish, when with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, the Illini were blown out in their final regular season game, their Big Ten Tournament opener and their NIT first-round game.

The team has the highest GPA since the team has kept record, according to Groce, with a 3.2 GPA during the spring semester, followed by a 3.5 GPA during the summer.

The Illinois men's basketball media guide front cover features two seniors who won't play this season for Illinois  -- Tracy Abrams will miss his second straight season with an injury and walk-on Mike LaTulip will redshirt -- and two seniors who have not yet played for Illinois, fifth-year transfers Khalid Lewis and Mike Thorne


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The injury bug continues to bite the Illini. John Groce divulged that starting sophomore forward Leron Black will have surgery Friday to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee and will miss four to six weeks. The Illini start the season in five weeks with a Nov. 13 opener against North Florida at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield. The injury means \"increased opportunities and reps for other guys,\" Groce said. \"When that door opens for those guys, we want to sprint through that door and knock that door down. ...That's all you can do. Control what you can control.\"

Jaylon Tate has missed the past few practices with a concussion.

Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands is on track in his recovery to be ready by the season opener, \"but that's as of today,\" Groce said. Groce said Coleman-Lands be \"full-go contact\" some time after Nov. 1. The team's first exhibition game is Nov. 8. The team's first regular-season game is Nov. 13. After sitting for four months with a stress fracture in his lower left leg -- Coleman-Lands said he was able to do some off-court work like upper-body lifting -- the team trainers are working to build up his conditioning and calf strength. \"We're going to do what's right,\" Groce said. \"If he's ready to go, which we anticipate, well before we play our first game, awesome. If he's not, am I going to play a guy that's hurt? No. I'm stating the obvious. Believe me, I wanted to play him yesterday. I want Black to play tomorrow. It just kind of is what it is with those guys. Do I believe he's on track to play clearly before or on the first home game date? No question. But, that's as of today. Body's are dynamic.\"

The team has a \"next-man up philosophy,\" according to Groce. \"If you look at the spring of 2014 versus the team we finished with in the spring of 2015, that was a grand total of 80 games missed,\" Groce said. \"That's a lot. But our guys never had any excuses. They never took shortcuts. They did not complain. It was a next-man up philosophy. We have to have that now, obviously, as we've gone through a little bit of the injury bug now with this team.\"

The European trip gave the Illini a \"head start,\" Groce said. With the 10 additional practices, four games and extra time together, \"We learned a lot more about our team,\" Groce said. \"We learned a lot more about individuals. I think it gave us a real jump start in a lot of different areas.\"

The standard for juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn \"is through the ceiling,\" Groce said. The Illini coach said he needs the juniors to lead the team not only in production, but vocally and with positive body language. \"Our job is to bust through that ceiling or those self-imposed thresholds we all put on each other and ourselves,\" Groce said. \"I think what coaches do, the great ones, is find ways to get guys to do things that they thought maybe weren't possible. Right now, I'm expecting an awful lot out of those guys from a leadership perspective, from their intensity level that they bring to practice, what I expect from them on and off the court, all the way across the board.\"

The Illini don't have an elite individual defender like recently graduated senior Nnanna Egwu, an All-Big Ten Defensive Team member last season. Groce said defense has to be a bigger team effort this season. Senior Tracy Abrams told the team defense must remain the team's identity. \"We have a couple guys who are very gifted defensively,\" Groce said, \"but all in all it's going to have to be a team effort, a buy-in to that identity, a buy-in to that our toughness starts with rebounding and defending.\"

The fifth-year transfers experience helps Illinois, but both center Mike Thorne and point guard Khalid Lewis are still adapting to the team's terminology and system, especially Lewis who wasn't able to play with the team during its European trip. But Lewis \"has caught up quickly,\" Groce said. \"He's a competitive kid. He's a tough kid. He cares. He's worked very hard to learn and get a lot better through the fall training camp. I'm really excited about him. He's certainly exceeded my expectations, and a lot of it is because of his competitive toughness and his ability to learn very quickly.\" Groce said he recently has challenged Lewis to be more vocal, a trait he needs in that position -- even out of a newcomer. \"I've already seen that because he's very naturally inclined to talk,\" Groce said, \"which is a good thing.\"

Jaylon Tate \"has improved in a lot of areas,\" Groce said. \"He's stronger. He's added weight. I think he's a little bit mentally tougher, just being older and going through some wars. Maybe (in the past), there were times he demonstrated that and times he didn't. I think he's learned a lot in that regard. I think he has a great voice. It's hard to teach that. He's very vocal. He can pass and handle the ball.\" But what about his shooting? \"I think he's gootten better there,\" Groce said. \"People ask me a lot about that. It's certainly very noticeable during summer and fall. In terms of the confidence piece, I've always felt like as a player you see one go in during a game that makes a big difference mentally for a lot of guys. He's improved. Obviously, we're going to need both him an Khalid.\"

Michael Finke is a \"completely different player\" after redshirting. \"He's getting better,\" Groce said of the redshirt freshman forward/center. \"He's stronger. He weighs more. He's more skilled He's become an even better shooter. He can really pass. He poses match-up problems offensively, and is really working hard to become a better defender and impact the game on the backboard at his size.\"

Coleman-Lands is \"as good of a shooter as I've recruited as a freshman coming in,\" Groce said, including Jon Diebler who Groce coached as an assistant at Ohio State. Groce talked in-depth about what Coleman-Lands add in my Q&A with him this week.

Freshmen Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams are a bit inconsistent, as most freshmen are. \"Williams has had some good days,\" Groce said. \"Jordan's had some good days. Both guys care at a really high level about being good. They want to be good, and they're quick learners. They have the ability to learn quickly. So they're getting better rapidly. ...Obviously, the goal is to get those guys to string more of those (good) days together, so that you have some consistency there.\"

Groce talked glowingly about this team's versatility. The team can play multiple styles. \"We got guys that are learning multiple positions,\" Groce said. \"We'll have the ability to play small, play big -- to give you even different looks within different positions.\" For instance, Mike Thorne gives the Illini a big, low-post option at the 5, but backup Michael Finke can give the team a more versatile inside-out threat at the position. Hill can play the 4 or the 3. Freshman D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan currently are playing the wing position, but Groce said both eventually will play multiple positions -- and that Williams may eventually be able to play five positions.

The team acronym on this year's team bracelet -- Groce famously used TNT for \"Toughness 'N Togetherness\" his first season at Illinois -- is LSCA: Loving, Serving, Caring and Acceptance. Groce denied that the acronym, which encourages loving, serving, caring and accepting each other, is not a reaction to the disappointment of last season's finish, when with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, the Illini were blown out in their final regular season game, their Big Ten Tournament opener and their NIT first-round game.

The team has the highest GPA since the team has kept record, according to Groce, with a 3.2 GPA during the spring semester, followed by a 3.5 GPA during the summer.

The Illinois men's basketball media guide front cover features two seniors who won't play this season for Illinois -- Tracy Abrams will miss his second straight season with an injury and walk-on Mike LaTulip will redshirt -- and two seniors who have not yet played for Illinois, fifth-year transfers Khalid Lewis and Mike Thorne.

#illini media guide pic.twitter.com/hP6Wn8uV33

— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) October 8, 2015

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