ROSEMONT — John Groce looked over in disbelief when it was announced that the Fighting Illini had nine returning letter winners. That's because the number of returning lettermen is only four.
Nine is an important number for the Illini, however. Groce quickly corrected the moderator at Big Ten media day Thursday, saying the Illini have nine fresh faces.
Illinois welcomes in five freshmen and a quartet of transfer students this season, one that regardless of success will be noteworthy for the transition of the old Illini guard to the new. The end of last season brought the departures of Illinois mainstays Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. That leaves only three key players returning for the Illini — junior guard Tracy Abrams, junior forward Nnanna Egwu and senior guard Joseph Bertrand.
"It's a completely different team from last year," Groce said. "It's got its challenges, but it's been a lot of fun."
The challenges, Groce explained, have mainly dealt with just getting everyone acclimated, everyone used to everybody else. With so many new names on the backs of Illinois jerseys this year, the team needs to be able to trust each other. It's something the coaches have been tasked with improving.
"I think just getting to know them, obviously that takes time," Groce said. "I wish there was a formula where you could speedball it, but it takes time. Coaches aren't the most patient guys in the world, so I'm trying to be aggressively patient with that approach, put them in situations where they have to deal with adversity. I think one of the things that helped us was we did an exercise this summer and fall with SEAL team, physical training. I thought that helped to bring us all closer together, the staff participated as well. Things like that, putting them in situations where they have to rely on one another has allowed us to get to know them better. But we still need to get to know them even better."
For that trio of returning contributors, the job falls on them to not only replace Paul and Richardson but also to guide along a group of newcomers, five of whom are freshmen. That includes a pair of Simeon products in Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, as well as Belleville East's Malcolm Hill. The two Chicago kids come from a basketball powerhouse, and they've impressed their teammates using their experience playing alongside one another. But Hill, Egwu says, has stood out the most. The Illinois junior, however, has been impressed with all his underclassmen teammates.
"It's a big step, it's a big step for them. But the one thing I like about all these freshmen is all five of them are coachable and teachable. And their attitudes are amazing," Egwu said. "That's why they've been able to learn things so quickly. That's why Jaylon's been able to get so much better throughout the summer and fall. So has Kendrick, so has Malcolm. These guys understand what they need to work on, and they go out and do it. Those guys are working out constantly to try and improve their game."
When it comes to replacing Paul and Richardson, however, that task won't be as easy. Those two were the Illini's leading scorers last season, with Paul averaging 16.6 points per game and Richardson averaging 12.3 points per game. The two each finished off impressive four-year careers at Illinois, leaving a bigger hole than simply the one on the stat sheet.
But Egwu says that replacing those two isn't an objective of the new crop of upperclassmen.
"I don't think anyone's worried about filling their shoes," Egwu said. "Everybody's just worried about going out and doing what they've got to do. Obviously, Brandon was a great player, amazing player, and D.J. was an amazing player, but no one's going out there and saying, 'I want to be like D.J. Richardson, I want to be like Brandon Paul.' They're like, 'I want to be me, I want to go out there and make my own legacy. I want to be that guy when I leave to say can he fill his shoes.'"