Transcript (via Big Ten Conference)
Groce: Good morning. You know, obviously, it's an exciting time for all of us coming up here and the season starting. This kind of represents the tipoff to all that. Our guys have worked very hard. We had a great off-season. I thought the European trip really helped us tremendously. The additional practices probably even more so than the four games that we played.
We learned a lot about our team. We have an interesting dynamic with three freshmen and then two fifth-year transfer newcomers in Thorne and Lewis. Lewis did not start school until fall semester. So he missed the European practices as well as the trip. So trying to get him acclimated and figuring out what those guys are going to bring and what they do best and trying to play to their strengths. And, certainly, the additional practices and the trip really helped us with that.
I'm really proud of our guys and how they attacked the off-season. In addition to that, guys have gotten stronger. Guys have gotten better. They're more skilled. They shoot the ball better. Their bodies have changed. They've really made a tremendous commitment to their games, as well as to the classroom.
I'm proud of what they do in the classroom. We had a 3.23 in the spring, which was highest on record in the history of Illinois basketball. Came back with 3.5 this summer. Those are team GPAs. And what they do in the community. When you put all those things together, I'm very excited about who we have, the character in our locker room, where we're going, how we're doing it. So that part is exciting.
You know, obviously, the biggest thing for us right now is getting healthy. I tried to make sure, when I got up out of bed this morning, that I didn't trip over anything or, you know, tried to remain healthy between the walk from the hotel room down the elevator here to the press conference. You know, you're in an interesting situation when a doctor sometimes, with some of these injuries we've had -- I was telling somebody outside if he says, "Hey, the guy is going to be out four weeks" and you go, "Yes!" you know you've been through a lot over the two years.
And people ask, "Is it unprecedented?" You know, I'm sure there's other injuries. That's part of sports. But to miss 80 games last year and then to go through what we went through to this point this year early is a little bit unprecedented. But it's happened for a reason. We'll deal with it. We have a next-man-up philosophy. Our guys know that. We're not going to make excuses. We don't take shortcuts. We're not going to complain. We're going to figure it out. That's what we do. In the meantime, we'll try to get those guys as healthy as possible and get them back as quickly as possible.
Q: What exactly happened to Kendrick Nunn and how serious is the injury and when did it happen?
Groce: I don't know a whole lot at this point other than the fact that the right thing to do was to not bring him today because he did get injured in practice two days ago with his left hand/thumb. And it swelled up a little bit. We had a chance to get him in to see our hand specialist this morning where they'll do further evaluation. I'll know more, I'm hoping, sometime today. But in his best interests, I apologize. I know he was looking forward to coming up to his home city here. But we thought it was in his best interests to get that evaluated and then we'll go from there.
Q: Just two things. I guess it's not broken, then?
Groce: I'm not a doctor, obviously. I don't have an x-ray at this point, an MRI. He hasn't met with the hand specialist. We don't have anything at this point. Those appointments are this morning. And then once those appointments take place, Shannon, we'll know a lot more.
Q: Do you have updates on how Black is doing after the surgery?
Groce: Yeah. Leron is doing well. Leron is a tough kid. When the surgery took place, it became very evident that the meniscus had been torn a long time ago. The doc asked me, "What's this kid's pain threshold like?" I said, "Very high." Leron is a very, very tough kid and playing on it for a long period of time. So, actually, we feel blessed that we were able to -- the knee swelled a little bit on the one weekend. We decided to get it X-rayed and led to an MRI. And found out that we had a torn meniscus and we repaired it. Surgery went great. He's already off crutches. He's already doing some type of cardiovascular exercise and doing some rehabilitation exercises with the knee as well. That's very encouraging, and we hope to get him back soon.
Q: You kind of joked about being able to get out of bed and stay healthy. But how is the team just dealing with this, just from a morale standpoint, not letting it feel like maybe there's this dark cloud?
Groce: They don't have much of a choice. It just is what it is. We talk about the next-man-up philosophy a lot. We did that a lot last year. So we've got guys in our locker room that went through a lot last year.
I think the hardest part is -- we're going to get these guys back. The hardest part, what I learned last year, is when guys are coming in and out and your team is changing throughout the course of a season, what I worry about as a coach, more than anything, is the growth of our team, our ability to continue to improve and get better.
You know, you just don't snap your fingers -- a guy like Coleman-Lands, who will be back here soon as well, he didn't participate in summer training camp. He didn't participate in fall training camp. We'll be glad to get him back. Absolutely. He's a very good player, no question. He's an even better person. But it's going to take a bit of time.
So those are the things, I think, that are more on my mind right now. How do I accelerate our team's growth and development, give them some type of continuity and stability with what we're learning to make sure that we're getting better through the challenge of the multiple injuries.
Q: Coach, obviously, you lost Nnanna Egwu this past off-season and you get Mike Thorne, Jr., a transfer from Charlotte. What are the differences in their two games and what do you expect from Thorne this year and how is he going to fit into your offense as compared to Andrews last year?
Groce: Well, they're completely different players, almost 180s. You know, Thorne's very gifted offensively and is a very good rebounder, big, 6'11", 280 pounds. He's worked very, very hard to get himself in shape. Our strength coach, Adam Fletcher, has done a tremendous job with him and he's playing really well right now. Defensively, he's got some work to do in terms of learning our system, placing an importance level on that end of the floor as much as he does the other end in his rebounding, and we're going to get there. Where Egwu was probably the opposite of that, you know, obviously Egwu's as good a defender at his position as anybody I've ever coached as a head coach or assistant coach. He was special in that regard. So Nnanna's not out there anymore defensively and we're going to have to get it done by committee on that end of the floor.
Q: Coach, you recently said you like where the program's at heading into this season. Why do you think you've turned a corner and good things are ahead?
Groce: Well, I'm anticipating, obviously, getting some of these guys back. I love the character of our locker room right now. I love the versatility of our team. That's a big thing. We've got guys who can play multiple positions. We can play small. We can play big. As I mentioned earlier, I like what they're doing in the community. I like what we're doing in the classroom. They represent what we want to be about. We're just in a really good place right now. We've continued to add talented people and players to our team through recruiting. So I'm excited about that. Obviously, the biggest thing right now is just getting healthy.