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Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce wants to play fast, but he can’t just yet

New Illinois coach John Groce has been most impressed with NnannEgwu this offseason. “He’s gone above beyond” Groce said. |

New Illinois coach John Groce has been most impressed with Nnanna Egwu this offseason. “He’s gone above and beyond,” Groce said. | AP

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Updated: November 12, 2012 12:06PM

CHAMPAIGN — Ask John Groce who has impressed him the most in offseason workouts, and the new Illini coach doesn’t hesitate.

‘‘The guy that’s stood out is Nnanna Egwu,’’ Groce said at Illinois’ basketball media day Wednesday. ‘‘He’s gone above and beyond. You ask him to do 10 pushups, he does 13. You tell him to become a better student of the game, he’s up in the office begging for DVDs. That’s what we’re looking for, guys who want to do whatever it takes.’’

If Egwu, a 6-11 sophomore from Nigeria by way of St. Ignatius, can deliver in the post, it would go a long way toward answering one of Illinois’ big questions.

With practice starting Friday, Illinois is loaded with questions. That’s one reason Bruce Weber is gone and Groce, a former Thad Matta assistant who built his reputation on tournament success at Ohio, is in Champaign.

Groce is trying to rebuild a team that lost 12 of its last 14 games last spring, then saw 7-footer Meyers Leonard forego his last two years of eligibility for the NBA. He was drafted 11th by the Portland Trail Blazers.

The paint is not at the top of Groce’s list, though.

‘‘We have a relatively inexperienced frontcourt,’’ Groce said, ‘‘but my bigger concern, quite honestly, is ballhanding. To play the way we want to play, you have to have multiple ballhandlers. We want to attack. We want to wear you out with a 94-foot game. Are we going to be able to do that this year? I’m not sure yet.’’

Lots of coaches talk about up-tempo play. Groce means it. But he also is realistic. Perimeter players Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand have been working on ballhandling. So have big men Egwu and Tyler Griffey.

But Groce said he won’t get ahead of himself.

‘‘We certainly want to play fast long term,’’ he said. ‘‘But we don’t want to try to ram a square peg into a round hole. Our job is to find that balance between putting in our system and giving this year’s team the best chance to be competitive.’’

In a league that could have five Top 25 teams, with a couple of others making progress rebuilding, Illinois faces an uncertain season.

That kind of talk is fuel for the Illini’s fire.

‘‘It’s kind of frustrating when people say, ‘Try and make it to the tournament,’ ’’ Egwu said. ‘‘That should be a given. We should be focused on how far we’re going to make it in the tournament.’’

‘‘Everybody overlooks us,’’ senior guard D.J. Richardson said. ‘‘On my schedule, no team is really circled. I circled the whole schedule. I feel we owe every team revenge in my last three years here.’’

It’s unlikely Illinois is going to be good enough to back that up. But it’s a good approach for a team that has lacked toughness.

‘‘The main thing is, we have to improve mentally on last year,’’ Egwu said. ‘‘When something goes wrong, we have to have the right mind-set to get over it and keep driving.’’

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