CHICAGO - Illinois head coach John Groce enters Year Four, usually an all-important season for a coach -- especially one whose team has missed the NCAA Tournament in two straight years.
Groce has a tough task ahead of him.
The Big Ten -- which has six teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 -- looks like the deepest conference in the country.
He also has a depleted roster -- senior captain Tracy Abrams is out for the season, junior guard Kendrick Nunn recently suffered a thumb injury, sophomore forward Leron Black just started a monthlong recovery from surgery to repair a torn meniscus and top freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands is just returning to the basketball activities after suffering a stress fracture in his lower left leg.
But at Thursday’s Big Ten media day, Groce scoffed at a question about the pressure to make the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m not going down that road,” Groce said. “I’m focused right now on getting our team to perform at its highest level, the team I have currently which is on the floor about nine guys, maybe 10. That’s what I can control right now. We’ll get some other guys back on the floor the next few weeks hopefully and that’ll help. That’ll help our depth.
“But at the end of the day, I can’t control that. I learned that last year. If you would’ve said to me on paper last year heading into the year having not had all the issues or even a normal amount of injuries, could that team have been the best team we had in three years? Oh, no question. But that didn’t happen. For me to reflect on that too much or try to control the fact that Ray Rice breaks his hand, I’ve learned that you can’t do that. Or Tracy Abrams. It is what it is.
“For me right now, the focus is on whoever’s out there every day, getting them to play the brand of basketball that we want. I want to play fast and aggressive on offense. I want to share the ball. I want to be committed to defending the ball as a team, and we’re not quite there yet, but the European trip helped. I think we’re a little bit further along because we’re a little bit older.
“And I do think once we get some guys back and healthy, then I think we have a chance to have a special year. But some of those things I can’t control. I’m going to worry about what I can control.”
Groce also was asked how much turmoil within his athletic department -- two separate investigations into the women’s basketball program (former players alleged racism and verbal abuse, which were determined to be unfounded by an independent investigation) and the football program (former players alleged physical abuse and medical misconduct, which sparked an independent investigation whose findings resulted in the firing of head coach Tim Beckman a week before the season).
But the Illinois coach said he tries not to let ouside noise penetrate his program.
“We try not to let it because for us, it goes back to I can’t control that," Groce said. "I can control what’s happening with us on a daily basis, and that’s what we’re going to control. I can’t control what people say or how they feel or what their opinions are, things that are happening outside our basketball program. I don’t necessarily have in-depth knowledge on those sorts of things. I can stay locked in on what we’re doing. We take a lot of pride in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”