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New Illinois coach John Groce opens up a goal new world

John Groce brings an energy thhas wover returning players from Bruce Weber era. | John H. White~Sun-Times

John Groce brings an energy that has won over returning players from the Bruce Weber era. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:44AM

CHAMPAIGN — Everyone has hopes and dreams — goals that seem realistic — when basketball practice begins in October.

Illinois’ were intact in mid-January, when it stood at 15-3 with a 4-1 Big Ten record after a 79-74 win over No. 5 Ohio State that was led by Brandon Paul’s 43-point epic. It was the most points by a Big Ten player in nearly 20 years, and it had the Illini thinking big.

Then the bubble burst. Stung by heart-breaking losses at Penn State and Minnesota, the Illini lost 12 of their last 14 to finish 17-15. After being ranked 22nd in the nation, they failed to make the field of 68 for the NCAA tournament, and coach Bruce Weber was fired.

The program had grown stale under Weber, who was 41-49 in his last five Big Ten seasons.

Now comes John Groce, hired to pick up the pieces. The only problem is, it’s not clear how many pieces he has. And that could be a tough deal in a Big Ten that has five top-25 candidates (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin) and three more programs (Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue) that figure to be elbowing with Illinois in the next rung.

In other words, Illinois basketball is a bit of a project. It’s not as down as Illinois football. But Groce, who’s an enthusiastic organization man, is shrewdly preaching principles and good habits, rather than wins and losses, at this point.

‘‘We have to get three things done,’’ he said when asked how he’ll measure success this season. ‘‘We have to [develop] a culture of toughness and togetherness. Second, we need to develop a defensive mind-set, where we care as much or more about getting stops as [offense]. And third, [we have to embrace] the concept that every day matters. Every practice, every workout, every single thing matters. We can’t have bad days. I don’t do bad days. Those are the three most important things to establish here in Year 1.’’

That’s a mouthful. But so far, so good.

‘‘He’s great,’’ senior guard D.J. Richardson said of his new coach. ‘‘He’s young, he has energy. You see him in the weight room. You even see him tweet a little bit.’’

Groce, a former Thad Matta assistant who turned the Ohio Bobcats into a tough NCAA tournament out, may be ambiguous about success. But he’s very specific about the details that lead to it.

‘‘I wouldn’t say there’s one biggest change,’’ senior forward Tyler Griffey said. ‘‘It’s adjusting to everything. Style of play, organization, how he runs things, how he wants things done.’’

The departure of Meyers Leonard, the 7-footer who went to the Portland Trail Blazers with the 11th pick in the NBA draft rather than return for his junior year, creates a big hole in the middle. And Groce’s guard-oriented, uptempo style will be tempered by Illinois’ ball-handling liabilities.

But the cupboard isn’t bare.

Paul, who could vie for the Big Ten scoring title, and Richardson, a former Big Ten freshman of the year, give Groce a chance on the wings, where Joseph Bertrand, a solid shooter, will back up.

Sophomore Tracy Abrams, Illinois’ MVP last season, is a bulldog at point guard. If the 6-8 Griffey, who has shown flashes, can settle in at the four, and if 6-11 sophomore Nnanna Egwu can translate his offseason dedication at center, Illinois could be better than advertised. It also could use backup interior help from Sam McLaurin, a grad-student transfer from Coastal Carolina.

That’s a lot of “ifs” for Groce’s first season. That’s often the case when a coaching change is made.

But seniors Paul, Richardson, Griffey and McLaurin are determined to make the most of their last shot.

‘‘Last year left a bitter taste in our mouths,’’ Paul said. ‘‘We don’t want to go back to that. Everyone’s a lot more motivated this year. Everyone’s on the same page. It’s been getting us better every day.’’

That’s the way it should be in October.

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