Jeremy Werner

The 'If healthy' clause for Illini hoops

Illini hoops has plenty of reasons to be excited about this season...If healthy.

CHAMPAIGN --The 'if healthy' clause is the official disclaimer attached to any written or verbal expectation for the Illini basketball team this season.

It's in the fine print. Or oftentimes, it's right there for you to see. That's what happens when 60 percent of the team's projected starting lineup missed a combined total of 87 games last year.

The Illini had an ugly and injury-ravaged season in 2015-16, as they went 15-19 overall and 5-13 in Big Ten play. They were snake-bitten in what was supposed to be an evaluation year for head coach John Groce.

Now, expectations are high inside and outside of the program...If healthy.

With Mike Thorne Jr., Leron Black, Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan, Illinois has the deepest and most versatile frontcourt in the Big Ten...If healthy.

Illinois will turn rebounding from a major weakness into a major strength this year...If healthy.

The return of Tracy Abrams gives the Illini a sorely-needed leader and a Big Ten-quality starter at point guard...If healthy.

With a talented, deep and veteran roster, Illinois is an NCAA tournament team...If healthy.

The Illini could be top five in the Big Ten...If healthy.

It's pretty clear in Champaign what this team is capable of accomplishing, and you heard it all at Illini basketball media day last Friday.

"I think we've got the chance to do something special," Groce said. "We have high expectations. We have high standards. We're pursuing excellence here."

You hear the same rhetoric from the players on the court.

"Sky is the limit for us," Abrams said. "Sky is definitely the limit for us."

Those are big words, especially for a program that has seen more of the floor than the sky in recent seasons. But the words are believable...If healthy.

That's really all anyone with any kind of attachment to Illinois basketball is hoping for this year. Allow this team to have its fate play out on the court and not in the training room. And let this be a clear-cut evaluation of the entire spectrum: Groce, his staff and where this program is headed.

If the Illini are healthy and they don't perform this year, there are no excuses.

"I'm not a big excuse guy. I don't like 'em. They stink," Groce said himself on Friday.

He talked about the experience he has on this team. Experience that allows him to showcase his coaching abilities. He doesn't have to "start from Ground Zero" by teaching culture, effort, attitude and system basics.

"What that allows you to do as a coach is focus on the Xs and Os of the game. How to develop your team. How to develop each player. How to build them up. How to build your team up," Groce said. "To me, that's a huge advantage for us when it comes to the experience and it's going to allow us, hopefully, to continue to take monster steps forward instead of small steps."

Monster steps forward are necessary for a team that was 334th in the country in three-point field goal percentage defense and 323rd in overall field goal percentage defense. A team that was 13th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin. A program that has more Big Ten wins than just Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State and Rutgers over the last three seasons.

On their own, those are incriminating statements. There are more to pull, and the one in clear sight is that the Illini have missed the NCAA tournament three straight years for the first time since 1980. Hitting the mark of four arrests in a seven-month span back in the spring didn't help either.

But Groce says he and his team are "onward and upward". The directions this program needs to go.

The Illini aren't "diggin' up bones", as Groce referenced to a Randy Travis song he listened to on the way back from a recent recruiting trip.

"I'm diggin' up bones. I'm diggin' up bones. Exhuming things that's better left alone," the song reads.

As the words flowed out of his speakers, Groce could only smile heading back to Champaign on I-74 -- a return trip from visiting five-star Indianapolis forward Kris Wilkes, if you connect the dots. And he has reasons to smile.

Groce had to show results in two major areas after getting a vote of confidence from athletic director Josh Whitman. First, recruiting. Second, on the court this season. Groce and his staff have answered the call in recruiting. They have the No. 3 class in the country right now, and they're not done swinging. Being in the top three with Wilkes, a long-time assumed long shot and Indiana lean, has Groce playing with house money.

As for back in Champaign, he survived the nightmare of last season to find what should be his best team yet at Illinois. His group is hungry and connected. He has a Big Ten Player of the Candidate in Malcolm Hill, who he has to try to lock out of the gym because he takes fewer days off than the post office.

The team as a whole went above and beyond anything Groce has seen with their offseason body of work.

"Certainly in years past as an assistant coach and a head coach, we've had teams that work hard. We expect them to work hard. We've had players that work hard. We've had handful of guys that each summer or offseason that really made an extraordinary commitment to doing this thing at a really high level," Groce said. "But I don't think -- certainly in my time as a head coach -- that I've been around a team that collectively has done it the way this team has done it."

From a nightmare to a coach's dream? And the Illini have had good fortune with health. At last year's media day, Groce reported a meniscus tear for Black and a concussion for Tate. After Jalen Coleman-Lands already had a reported stress fracture. After Abrams was already done for the season.

Now, Coleman-Lands is the only player that isn't on the practice court. He suffered a fractured right hand early last month, and he had eight pins inserted during surgery. But Groce said Coleman-Lands is ahead of schedule and could possibly resume some basketball activities this week.

The anticipation builds as Illini nation officially reached their "is it basketball season yet" mode after seeing the football team drop to 1-4 on Saturday. Patience is a given for Lovie Smith's rebuild project. But there will be none when the spotlight journeys across Kirby Ave. in a few weeks.

And barring any resemblance to last year's health hex, the Illini shouldn't need any.

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