Five takeaways from Groce presser (June 16)

Takeaways from John Groce's beginning-of-summer press conference

1. "Onward and Upward"

Following a tumultuous year and a spring of discontent, John Groce and his program are looking for -- as he said -- "a fresh start." Groce continues to preach "control the controllables." His staff his hyper-sensative to over-training due to its hard-luck history of injuries recently, and new strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher seems like a whiz in injury prevention and functional strength training. After too many off-the-court issues, Groce said his team is now "galvanized." That could just be offseason talk, but it's interesting nonetheless. Kendrick Nunn's dismissal is a further reminder to this veteran-laden team that nothing is promised, and much of the team is running out of time. Seniors Malcolm HillMav Morgan and Jaylon Tate have never played in an NCAA Tournament. Neither has Mike Thorne. In his five years at Illinois, Tracy Abrams only has experienced one NCAA Tournament. They're running out of time. And as the seniors have shown, nothing is promised to the younger players either. After all the outside criticism, this group should be hungry to disprove the doubters. Hill, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, has provided a good example this offseason, putting in a great amount of work in the weight room (440 pound squat and 4.5-inch increase in vertical jump) and on the court.

USA Today // Mike Granse

2. Health is the priority

Illinois still has several key players returning from serious injuries. That will continue to be a concern, but the good news is that the team doesn't play a game for about another five months.

Groce said sixth-year point Tracy Abrams is physically "ahead of schedule" after back-to-back season-ending injuries. Groce added that Abrams feels strong, is the leanest he's ever been and "looks really explosive." But Groce said the coaches are being "a little bit conservative with him right now on the court." Abrams seems on track but is about "two to four weeks before we cut him loose," Groce said. Mike Thorne is limited as he continues to recover from a torn meniscus that cut his season short butt allowed him to receive a sixth year of eligibility. Groce said Thorne's knee looks "structurally great" and that his surgically-repaired knee is almost as strong as his healthy knee, which is a good sign. But Thorne needs to improve his cardiovascular shape and trim a few pounds to limit the pounding on that knee. Groce said Thorne is a "week to two weeks away from full go."

Leron Black is "full go," Groce said, after missing most of last season with a torn meniscus. He was cleared last weekend. Groce said Black experiences soreness sometimes but that it's "nothing out of the norm" and expected. Black also has leaned up, thanks in part to his diet, Groce said.

Te'Jon Lucas just arrived on campus and is no longer wearing the walking boot that covered his previously broken right foot. Lucas will be limited for a few weeks but has been cleared to do skill work (shooting, ball handling, etc.). He won't be cleared for contact until his right leg is as strong as his left leg.

The staff also is trying to be proactive about Jalen Coleman-Lands, who missed most of last offseason with a stress fracture in his lower left leg. So the coaches are holding him out of some workouts this summer to limit his workload.


3. The mystery man

Groce had no update on whether Tulane transfer Kipper Nichols will be eligible at the beginning of the season or the middle of the season. Nichols, a 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman wing, attended Tulane for a few weeks but never played a game before transferring. The assumption is that Nichols will be ineligible for the fall semester do to NCAA transfer rules requiring transfers to sit out a calendar year. But the Illini petitioned the NCAA for a waiver due to a perceived special circumstance for Nichols. Groce doesn't know when the NCAA will give the final ruling on Nichols. "It just comes when it comes," he said. As for Nichols the player, Groce said: "His body looks great. I would say clearly at this point, he's exceeded my expectations and our staff's expectations at this point. Obviously, he hasn't played a game yet. It's difficult when you transition in mid-semester, and you're the only guy and the teams 'this' far along and you're trying to play catch up. But I really admired the way he handled that. He had a great attitude. One of the one things I will tell you is he has the respect of his teammates because of how hard he works. He's one of those guys who goes above and beyond. He's in here constantly. He reminds me of Hill in that way."

4. Nunn's loss felt

Groce reiterated that the dismissal of Kendrick Nunn "was the right decision" but a "difficult decision." Following two separate guilty pleas on the team this summer -- Black was suspended four regular-season games for assault -- the Illini set a standard by dismissing Kendrick Nunn for domestic battery. Groce said, "We care about him. We want to see him succeed. We want him to learn, to grow, to move and to move on. We're going to do everything we can to help him move forward." That could be this year at a Division II program, a sit-out year to transfer to another Division I program or a professional career.

Meanwhile, the team must move on and make up for Nunn's lost production. Nunn averaged 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Coleman-Lands will assume the starting spot but others must step up to provide depth. Aaron Jordan is No. 2 on a strict depth chart, but he struggled as a freshman. Groce mentioned beyond Jordan that Nichols, Hill, sophomore wing D.J. Williams and one of the point guards could also take some time at the two. For instance, Abrams could play with Lucas or Tate. Hill could slide down to the two, giving the Illini a big lineup. Size, after all, could be the team's strength this season.

5. Putting Dee to work

Hip replacement surgery has limited director of player development and alumni relations Dee Brown recently. The new staffer and Illini icon hasn't been in the office a lot as he recovers, but Groce is still putting him to use. Brown was present -- on crutches -- when a few 2018 targets visited last week. "We want him as involved (in recruiting) as we can possibly have him involved," Groce said. That only includes on-campus recruiting. Only full-time assistants can recruit off-campus. can be a big help to the Illini. Not only due to his magnetic personality and legendary college career, Groce said, but because of his post-college career success as a professional basketball player and now college athletics staffer at his alma mater.

"I call it having a contingency plan, or life after basketball," Groce said. "He's treated people so well and done such a great job academically that he's set himself up for a very productive life and a chance to be impactful when his basketball career is over. All the things we're asking our guys to do to get to where they want to go, the places they want to get to is where Dee's been. That part's invaluable. That and he's walked in their shoes on this campus. He has experiences that are really helpful to our guys."

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