ROSEMONT – Every coach seems giddy at the beginning of a new season.
Illinois coach John Groce says he’s having a blast, even at practice.
Groce, who replaced the fired Bruce Weber in March, has been impressed with the enthusiasm of his new team.
“It’s been maybe as fun as any time I’ve been in coaching to go to practice,” said Groce, who was the head coach at Ohio University. “They’re excited to be there. They’re passionate. They want to learn. They have exceeded my expectations in that regard.”
Likewise, Groce has made his objectives known. At Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day, Illinois players Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson wore orange wristbands with the inscriptions “TNT” which stands for “toughness and togetherness,” as well as the opening date of the NCAA tournament.
Groce, 41, will try to reinvigorate a team that lost 12 of its final 14 games last season to finish 17-15 and ninth in the Big Ten, missing the postseason. The Illini return four starters.
“We really appreciate them wanting to come here and help us get better and back on track,” said Paul, a senior guard. “Coach Groce is real animated and that’s something that’s helped us. He brings so much energy to the table. We come to practice and we’re really energetic. Everyone’s talking to each other. Everyone’s helping each other out.”
Richardson said the young coaching staff relates to the players, and those coaches frequently use social media. Richardson also appreciated that Groce took the time to call players’ family members after he was hired – Groce phoned Richardson’s parents and uncle.
“I say to the staff all the time, ‘The first step to reaching our potential is getting to know our team and getting to know our individual players at a high level,” Groce said.
Groce’s resume has also commanded respect from the Illini players. As the No. 13 seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament under Groce, Ohio upset fourth-seeded Michigan and fell to top-seeded North Carolina in overtime in the Sweet 16. Groce went 85-56 at Ohio and he was previously an assistant at Ohio State, Xavier and Butler.
“We have to listen to what Coach says,” Richardson said. “He’s been to the NCAA tournament a lot of times. He knows what’s he talking about, especially with a team like Ohio. They beat Michigan in the NCAA tournament, and we lost to them twice last year. He knows what he’s talking about.”
Illinois is new territory. Groce said the Illini fans are “unbelievable” in their support, and he has received standing ovations in front of hundreds of supporters at community events. He wants to continue to make a mark with recruiting in Chicago, signing “the right ones.”
At Ohio, he said he was focused on his team playing tough, being disruptive on defense and taking care of the ball. That carries over to Illinois.
“I think about the ‘05-‘06 team we had at Ohio State. I want to say that team was picked maybe ninth or 10th (in the Big Ten), and they won the league,” Groce said. “I’m more concerned about process and doing things the right way and getting caught up in the journey.”