CHAMPAIGN — Four months ago, Austin Colbert had never met Maverick Morgan, didn’t know Jon Ekey and had barely heard of Rayvonte Rice.
Now they’re Illini basketball teammates, and as Colbert scanned the Ubben Practice Facility court during Wednesday’s media day, he smiled and gestured with his hand.
“Those are my brothers out there,” said Colbert, the freshman forward from New Jersey whose voice is as deep as a fog horn.
More than shooting, dribbling or learning defensive footwork, head coach John Groce has spent a great deal of time since June trying to encourage strangers to become brothers. Even now that practice has been underway for nearly two weeks, chemistry building is still at the top of Groce’s list.
It has to be, he figures, as he tries to somehow meld three returning regulars with nine players who have never played a game in an Illini jersey.
“Find a coach who has nine new fresh faces,” Groce said, issuing a challenge to the media. “It’s exciting and fun, but it’s challenging.”
For the second year in a row, Groce has a bunch of newcomers to teach “his way” of practicing, “his way” of playing and “his way” of being the tightest group of teammates imaginable.
Last year everyone was new to the Groce process because it was his first year as Illinois’ head coach. This year only Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams, Joe Bertrand and Rice have been through an entire year understanding what Groce expects, and Rice did it without playing in a game, having transferred from Drake. He’ll finally make his debut this season.
This year the newcomers include five true freshmen and four more transfers, only one of which (Ekey from Illinois State) will be eligible to play.
Three other transfers — Aaron Cosby of Seton Hall, Darius Paul of Western Michigan and Ahmad Starks from Oregon State — will sit out under the NCAA’s transfer rule and will give Illinois a talented trio relegated to street clothes on game nights.
In the meantime, Groce anticipated a critical job this summer would be to accelerate the process of getting to know and trust one another.
So he enlisted the help of SEAL Team Physical Training, a group headed by former Navy SEAL John McGuire. It’s a company McGuire heads in Richmond, Va., and he has worked with sports teams and done corporate team building.
McGuire brought his boot-camp style program to Champaign for three days in June and returned in September to put the Illini basketball team through the paces again, judging what kind of progress they had made.
The program pushes participants physically and mentally and forces them to confront difficult situations that require communication, trust and pushing beyond what one thought he could do.
“He put our players in a position where they had to deal with things that made them uncomfortable,” Groce said. Players who couldn’t swim had to paddle through ice water. Team building was essential, helping others a must. “We had to attack our fears head-on,” Groce said.
“It was a great experience,” said Morgan, a freshman center from Ohio. “We have nine new guys and we’re all from different places, but this forced us to come together quickly. And now we’re not 14 guys. We’re one team, and the SEAL training helped us with that transition.”
Nowadays, Groce believes he sees carryover. He sees freshmen trusting juniors Egwu and Abrams to show them how to perform in practice and senior Joe Bertrand explaining a defensive assignment.
“Our main goal was to become closer on and off the court. We’ve come a long ways since we first got together this summer,” Groce said.
The adjustment from being a star in high school to being a wide-eyed freshman in college has been jarring to all the newcomers.
Freshman guard Jaylon Tate from Chicago Simeon said his first exposure to an Illini practice was an awakening.
“It’s just the level of practice, the intensity,” he said. “You have to compete every single day. There is little room for error. Every day matters. I’m learning how important it is to have the right positioning on defense. In high school it wasn’t a big deal, but it is here. There are so many great players.”
Groce said he has barely had time to think about lineups, substitution patterns and all the personnel decisions that will be upon him soon. The Orange & Blue intrasquad scrimmage is next Thursday. The exhibition opener is Oct. 24. And the regular season tips off against Alabama State on Nov. 8.