THE MODERATOR: We're joined by John Groce. Coach, an opening statement.
COACH GROCE: Thank you, good morning. We've got nine fresh faces. So we've got a new team with five returning players. Very excited to work with them. It is a completely different time than last year. It's got its challenges, but it's been a lot of fun. We've gotten a lot better since the 27th when we started. I thought the ability to work with them in the summer also helped with the new access model that started last summer, and so not this past summer but the previous. I thought that helped us in terms of the transition.
And guys are competing hard. We're pretty inconsistent right now, which is normal. But we're going to get there. I like our guys and they're up for challenges and we're anxious to start competing.
THE MODERATOR: Questions?
Q. I know Joe Bertrand is a guy kind of always right there. What kind of steps do you foresee him taking this year?
COACH GROCE: That's a great question. We need him to take another step. And more with his vocal leadership. He knows that, will probably allude to that as he's interviewed here today with us.
Great kid. Great for the program. Great for our young guys from the standpoint of setting an example of how hard we work and how we do things in the offseason and how we practice and how he treats his body, and Joe's a pro's pro with that stuff.
We'd like to see him take another step with the vocal leadership part. And obviously from a production standpoint we need him to take a step there as well. There will be more responsibility this year for him in both rebounding, scoring for us, being efficient in a lot of statistical areas, but, again, more vocal leadership than anything.
Q. What are your expectations for your two freshmen from Simeon Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate this year?
COACH GROCE: My expectation is simple for those guys. I've just really talked to them about getting better every day, get a little bit better every day. Fortunately for both of them they were well coached.
They are very competitive kids. They're used to playing with and against some of the best players in the country. So neither one of them back down from anything, which I love. That's a great starting point.
But they're still figuring things out in terms of our system and how we want to do things offensively and defensively and they are a lot further along than when they started, but they've got to continue to get better.
Q. Do you see yourself running more of an up‑tempo style offensively with the freshmen you brought in with Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, or do you want to try to copy what you did last year?
COACH GROCE: I thought last year we played fast to a degree. I'd like to play faster. I think it's a great question. To do that, I've always said, we were able to do it my last year at Ohio where we had nine or ten guys we were playing. I think that's ideal.
Are we at that point now where we have nine or ten ready to do that? Players play players. They've got to earn that. In a perfect world, have we recruited and built ourselves more for speed? Yes, we have. So I think we're headed in that direction. Will we get to the top of that tempo, so to speak, this year? That remains to be seen.
Q. You have talked about high plans and building, just doing it the right way. How important is it for you to reach your goals at Illinois to shut down Chicago to other schools coming in and pilfering recruits?
COACH GROCE: We've never used the phrase "shut down Chicago." Chicago is a really, really important city for us, because it's in our state. We have a great state.
California and New York, I believe, are the only two states that have turned out more professional basketball players than the state of Illinois. So we've always been very talent‑rich.
It's one of the things that makes Illinois a great job, that our state is so strong and we want to do a great job in our state. Chicago being very, very important, as well as the other cities and towns in our state. We take pride in the basketball in the state of Illinois.
Q. Can you talk about how Rayvonte Rice has fit into your system this year? I know he had a year to get acclimated, but how he's playing?
COACH GROCE: Sure. I love talking about Ray because of the type of year he's had sitting out, maybe the best since I've been coaching in terms of a transfer and sit‑out year. From the amount of weight he lost, from the body fat decreasing to how much of a better shooter he's become and to his GPA, to his approach, mentally he's come a long way in a year and really improved big time in a lot of areas.
So we're very, very excited. Having said that, he had some jitters a little bit, I think he'd be the first to tell you, when we had our first exhibition game. It had been the first time he'd been out there in a while. He's anxious to put on that orange and blue jersey.
The other thing about Ray that I love is he's a Champaign native and watching Illinois basketball since he was little, and it means something to him to put on the jersey and play for his state school.
We're excited for Ray and have big hopes for him this season.
Q. I don't know if I've asked you this, but product of Thad Matta, you learned a lot from some of these coaches along the way. What did you really learn from him in you days at Ohio State about recruiting in the Big Ten and coaching in the Big Ten?
COACH GROCE: I've said obviously wouldn't have had the opportunity to be at such a great place like Illinois without him and several others. But he's meant a lot to my career, has really helped my family.
So I'm forever grateful for that. Learned a lot of different things from him, both on and off the court when it comes to the profession.
So for me, it's interesting. Obviously see him frequently because we're in the same league. And my son asked me the other day if we're still friends. I said, Yeah, Conner, we are. But obviously we are competitive, too.
He's a competitor. When you play one another one, two, three times a year, and when the ball gets thrown up, at that point it becomes business.
Q. Can you talk about some of the challenges that you personally and your staff have faced getting used to all these new players coming in this year?
COACH GROCE: Sure. I think just getting to know them. Obviously that takes time. I wish there was a formula where you could speed ball it. And it takes time.
I'm not real‑‑ coaches aren't the most patient guys in the world. So I've tried to be aggressively patient with that approach and put them in situations where they have to deal with adversity.
I think one of the things that helped us for sure is we did an exercise this summer and this fall with the SEAL team, physical training. I think that all helped. Brought us all closer together. Staff participated as well. Things like that put 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 better. We did through the recruiting process with most of them and through the fall and even this past summer, and here the season's started. That's an ever‑evolving curve, if you will. We're continuing to do it on a daily basis.
Q. I'm just curious, you talk about kind of grading players on how they do in practices and scrimmages. And how close are you to deciding the rotation and who you want where?
COACH GROCE: We're getting closer, for sure. And I'd like to get to that earlier this year. I think we can, because, again, as I mentioned earlier, we had the summer. We had the fall starting on September15th, which we could work with our group in its entirety. And now we started practice on September the27th, which is earlier than normal.
So because of that, we've had more evaluation time, if you will. So we've been able to define roles. We've already done that earlier than we usually would with such a young team as normally we'd be trying to figure it out.
I think we're getting closer to a rotation as well, not completely set but closer.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.