Groce's Team A Blend Of Different Pieces From Different Places

By Jon Rothstein
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Transfers have become part of the vernacular of college basketball.

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Each season, hundreds of student athletes opt to attend different schools. It’s a theme that’s escalated in past years, and will no doubt continue as time moves on.

For some programs, transfers are devastating.

For others, it’s a valuable way to build and maintain a competitive foundation in some of the best conferences in the country.

Enter John Groce.

Illinois’ fiery head coach, who just recently received a contract extension through the 2018 season after going 23-13 during his first year, has taken six — yes, six — transfers in the 14 or so months he’s been the job.

One played last year (Sam McLaurin). Two will definitely play next year (Jon Ekey, Rayvonte Rice), while one may suit up in 13-14 if he gets a waiver from the NCAA (Ahmad Starks). Another pair will definitely sit out next season (Aaron Cosby, Darius Paul).

“When we got into the spring after the season, we saw we may have some guys move on to other programs,” Groce said. “We lost four guys and we graduated five seniors. We had some imbalance in our classes, and taking some of these transfers allowed us to even that out a bit. We had an idea of what we were looking for and we’re excited about the pieces we’ve added.”

Illinois will definitely be a blend of different pieces from different places next season. Groce has three veterans returning that were rotation players last year in Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, and Nnanna Egwu, while Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice should have a major impact as a scorer. The 6-4 wing sat out this past season but averaged 16.8 PPG two years ago, and ranked third in the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring as a sophomore.

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“He maybe had the best sit year of any player I’ve ever been around,” Groce said of Rice. “He got better. He’ll have two really good years for us.”

Jon Ekey, a transfer from Illinois State should give Illinois a face up power forward that can extend defenses like Tyler Griffey did last season. He averaged 6.4 PPG last year and shot 34.6 percent from three-point range.

Ahmad Starks meanwhile, is an undersized point guard with deep range that will add ball handling and shooting. He averaged 10.4 PPG last year at Oregon State, and shot 39 percent from three-point range. Groce said he’s unsure if Starks will receive a waiver from the NCAA and be able to play next season.

“There’s great familiarity with all the transfers we brought in,” Groce said. “I coached against Jon (Ekey) and have obviously been familiar with Ahmad (Starks) for a long time. When I was at Ohio, I recruited Aaron Cosby before he became a BCS level recruit. I like the fact that he played both guard spots at Seton Hall. He’ll be very good for us as a combo guard, and we obviously know Darius Paul because Brandon Paul was one of the best guards in the country here last year. We knew the people we were getting involved with. That always helps when you’re dealing with new players.”

And that also includes freshmen.

Groce’s five-man recruiting class features two of the top 100 players in the Class of 2014 in shooting guards Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, as well as three other players (Austin Colbert, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate) that have a chance to have solid careers in the Big Ten.

“Our freshmen class gives us a little bit of everything because each guy brings something different to the table,” Groce said. “I’m excited about the pieces we’re bringing in because last year we were so reliant on our perimeter players. We’ll be a more well rounded offensive team next year. Nine out of our 14 players will be new. It’s an interesting dynamic. We had great perimeter play last year with Brandon (Paul), and D.J. Richardson, but there’s going to be a different look about our team for the next few years. When I got the job a year ago, my staff and I took a deep breathe and evaluated what we had, and what we were missing. With the transfers we’ve added, and the class we’ve signed, we’re in pretty good shape going forward.”

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