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Net results are positive for Illinois basketball coach John Groce

In this March 20 2010 file phoOhio head coach John Groce instructs his team during first half an NCAA second-round

In this March 20, 2010, file photo, Ohio head coach John Groce instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA second-round college basketball game against Tennessee in Providence, R.I. Groce has been hired as the men's basketball coach at the Univers

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Updated: April 27, 2013 6:25AM

AUSTIN, Texas — It’s fitting that a rare March storm dumped 15 inches of snow on central Illinois.

There’s a climate change in Illinois basketball, too.

Before their flight home was pushed back to Monday by the storm, the Illini nearly pushed back their NCAA tournament exit. They came within a couple of possessions of advancing to the Sweet 16 before being forced to swallow a
63-59 loss Sunday to Miami.

Even though Illinois loses four key seniors, it found something very important in its first season under John Groce: its identity for the future.

‘‘I couldn’t be more proud of our team throughout the course of the season, and it was exemplified in full fashion [against Miami],’’ Groce said. ‘‘We battled. I asked them to play with courage. They played with a high level of courage. Their poise was tremendous. These guys are high-character guys. They have laid a foundation for where we’re headed. I told them in the locker room I’ll be forever grateful for that.’’

Gone are four of Illinois’ top seven scorers — top-two mainstays Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, plus Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin.

With personnel losses like that, Illinois will enter next season answering questions about whether it can avoid taking a step backward.

But if next year’s team follows the lead of this year’s group, there’s no reason it can’t be in the same position it was this year: battling for a Sweet 16 berth after a solid season.

The program had gotten stale under Bruce Weber, who had difficulty meshing the right players with his system and missed the NCAA tournament three times in six years.

Groce, a man with a plan that stresses pressure defense and uptempo offense, was able to implement his principles this season. As he brings in his own recruits, Groce should have Illinois well-positioned for continued success.

Returning sophomore starters Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams were key contributors this year and only will be better as juniors. Egwu, who has a bright future, made a big statement by delivering his first career double-double (12 points and a career-high 12 rebounds) against the Hurricanes in the most important game of his career.

Abrams contributed eight timely points and once again showed the competitive juices to coax the most out of his game.

‘‘Next year, I don’t want to feel this,’’ Abrams said. ‘‘We just have to grow from it. This is a new beginning for us and our program. This is Coach’s first year. This was the foundation for us.’’

The most obvious candidates to become starters are athletic sixth man Joseph Bertrand and Myke Henry, but both will need to mature into more consistent performers.

Groce also might have better depth in his second season. Champaign native Rayvonte Rice, a 6-4 transfer from Drake, and a solid group of five freshman recruits are coming in. The top-25 recruiting class includes Malcolm Hill, a 6-5 wing from Belleville; two guards from Simeon, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate; athletic 6-9 forward Austin Colbert from New Jersey; and 6-10, 240-pound true center Maverick Morgan from Ohio.

The talent will be there. The next step will be for Groce and his staff to show next year’s roster how to grow the way this year’s roster did.

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