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Illini coach John Groce having preseason unlike any other

John Groce

John Groce

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Updated: October 9, 2013 11:23PM

CHAMPAIGN — John Groce’s sixth go-round as a college basketball head coach already has been unlike any before it.

In previous preseasons — the four at Ohio and a year ago at Illinois — Groce was a man with a meticulous plan. Every week, every practice, every drill was mapped out in advance, and, for the most part, it was up to Groce’s players to keep up. Groce estimates that he stuck to his plans 80 to 90 percent of the time, allowing for “wrinkles and adaptations” here and there based on what he was seeing.

But this time?

“This has been interesting,” Groce said Wednesday.

Wrinkles and adaptations have been replaced by “baby steps” and, on several occasions already, “putting on the brakes,” Groce said, as he and his staff break in nine new players for the 2013-14 season.

It’s complicated. And exciting. It’s challenging. And, judging by Groce’s outlook and demeanor, one of the more enjoyable periods in his career.

Groce’s first Illini team won 23 games and reached the third round of the NCAA tournament. It met, perhaps even exceeded, its potential, he believes.

He isn’t sure what to expect this season.

Junior point guard Tracy Abrams is back to steer the offense. Junior big man Nnanna Egwu, another returning starter, has packed 25 pounds onto his 6-11 frame. They’ll be surrounded mostly by players Illini fans will be seeing for the first time.

There’s great excitement about former Drake scoring leader Ray Rice, a versatile 6-4 specimen who sat out last season after transferring. If there’s anyone who seems ready to make an instant impact when the games start later this month, it’s the former first-team all-stater at Champaign Centennial.

If Rice — a “grown man,” Groce called him — is ready to roll, true freshmen Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and others are still mysteries for the Illini coaches to try to unravel.

“Our roles haven’t been set up, but everyone has been working hard,” said Nunn, a shooting guard from Simeon. “Whatever Coach wants us to do, we’ll be able to provide for the team.”

It’s the sort of hopeful, innocent comment one expects to hear from a freshman. Groce has more newcomers than he has ever dealt with before, and, well, there are only so many minutes and shots to go around.

“I tell our guys that when it comes to a head coach’s job,” Groce said, “one of the head coach’s jobs is to define reality for them.”

It’s early. There’s still time to wrinkle, adapt and, when needed, put on the brakes.


Twitter: @SLGreenberg

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