First-year bumps face Groce's fast pace

John Groce may have to ease into his accustomed tempo during his first year at Illinois. AP Photo/David Mercer

Illinois first-year coach John Groce is going to have the Illini playing fast-paced basketball at some point. He just isn't sure if it's going to be this season.

Groce, who came to Illinois via Ohio, has always preferred to play a high-tempo game. His Ohio teams averaged 67.7 possessions a game in four years. By comparison, Illinois averaged 63.7 possessions during Big Ten play last season and Iowa led the conference with an average of 65.8.

What could hold the Illini back from playing such a style this season is Groce's personnel. The Illini have one true point guard in sophomore Tracy Abrams and have to depend on the ball handling of senior shooting guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Groce said both seniors have improved in that area, but he'd prefer to have multiple point guards in his offense.

"I say my bigger concern is ballhandling," Groce said during Illinois' media day Wednesday. "I've been saying that for some time. To play the way we want to play, you have to have multiple ball handlers. Guys have certainly gotten better, as I said, over the spring, summer and fall.

"Someone asked me today, 'Are you going to play as fast as you want to play?' I'm not sure yet. Although we certainly want to play fast, long term, we don't want to try to ram a square peg into a round hole. That's not fair to the four seniors who are here. Our job as a staff is find that balance between putting in our system full fledge and also giving this year's team the best chance to be competitive."

Groce was hesitant to say definitively whether his group could play that high tempo because they just haven't had a whole lot of time together. They've had 20 workouts since the spring, but he didn't believe he got a true feel of his team because the practices were so infrequent.

Groce said he would have a better idea of where they stand in the next few weeks, especially with five practices planned from Friday to Sunday.

"Are we going to be able to do that on steroids this year?" said Groce, who has coached two NCAA tournament teams. "That remains to be seen. We still need these next two [to] three weeks of practice where we're practicing every day."

Groce's aggressive style stems some from other coaches, such as Mike D'Antoni, Thad Matta and Todd Lickliter, but also from his own creativeness and personality.

"Picking up things here and there are from those guys, but I think the most important thing by far, I've said this before, is I'm certainly not perfect, had to learn from mistakes like everybody else. But the one thing I think I did do right from the very beginning when I became a head coach, I said I'm going to be myself," Groce said. "I'm not going to be somebody else.

"How that relates to the offensive end is I have a real conviction that we want to attack, we want to be aggressive. We want to play with the ball in the paint. We want to play with great tempo, with pace and speed. We want to wear you out with a 94-foot game," he said. "That's me. That's who I am, and that's why we play that way."

That's now what he's asking Abrams to do this season. Groce has been encouraged by what he has seen from Abrams since the spring.

A year ago, Abrams was thrust into the starting lineup due to an injury, and he held his own for the most part. He averaged 4.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.6 turnovers in 21.1 minutes.

"I think Tracy wants to be a lead guard," Groce said. "I think that's half the battle. With who we have right now, as we mentioned, he's going to be our primary ball handler certainly as of today. But there's more to be a lead guard than being 6-foot-1. I always said that in recruiting."

Being a lead guard involves a whole lot more to Groce.

"Sometimes I'll look at different things. Guys will say he's a point guard, and I'll say, 'Why?'" Groce said. "‘Because he's 6-foot tall?' That doesn't make you a point guard. There's more to it than that. Do you understand time and score? Can you make guys better? Do you know who has the hot hand? Can you be the front porch for our defense? Are you vocal in your leadership as well displaying great body language? Are you the extension of the coach on the floor? Can you change speeds and gears? Can you defeat pressure?

"So there's a lot to being a point guard or a lead guard. The one thing I really like about Tracy is he's willing to learn, he picks up stuff quickly, he cares at a high level. That's all you can ask."