It's understandable that there's a good vibe around Illinois basketball. Its NCAA win over Colorado equalled the school's Big Dance win total for the previous six years, a big reason John Groce replaced Bruce Weber.
But now the work begins to improve on this year, when Illinois' roller-coaster 23-13 season ended with a tough loss to Miami in Austin, Tex.
``We're excited,'' Groce said Tuesday. ``The momentum and buzz around our program is not something I take for granted. The players and staff deserve a lot of credit. We still have a long way to go, but I love the direction we're headed. We're just going to keep grinding. As I say to the players, keep swinging that hammer every day, keep getting better every day. Because that's what we can control.''
For Groce and his staff, that means keeping an unblinking eye out for possible roster additions. Only four players who saw significant minutes return, starters Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, plus Joseph Bertrand and Myke Henry. Those four, plus Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice, are the projected starters. Five promising freshmen all will be given opportunities to earn roles, Groce said.
With three Weber-recruited players transferring out, Groce has three scholarships, and he sounds like he's pretty much decided to use at least one of those very soon.
``What are the chances I'll use at least one? Very strong,'' Groce said, adding that he's uncertain which direction he'll go.
It could be a fifth-year grad student who can play right away, as Sam McLaurin did this season, a traditional high-school recruit or anything in between.
``All options [are open], to be honest,'' Groce said. ``Every possible scenario you can imagine. Right now it's more about us trying to find the right fit for our program.''
One player on the radar is 6-3 guard Aaron Cosby, who's transferring from Seton Hall and reportedly has narrowed his choices to Illinois or Missouri. A Louisville, Ky., native, Cosby is an excellent shooter whom Groce tried to sign when Groce was at Ohio. Cosby would need to sit out a year, and would have two years of eligibility after that.
Rice, a home-grown 6-4 guard from Champaign Centennial, has made the most of his transfer season in the weight room and classroom as well as on the practice court, Groce said.
``He can play a big role,'' the coach said, ``because he has the ability to affect game in so many areas. He rebound, he can defend, he's a great athlete, he's physically strong, he can score. He's very versatile. On a given night, if his shot's not going, he can get you on the glass, and be a dominant defender out there. We expect a lot out of him. He expects a lot out of himself. He has a very bright future.''
Illinois' top-25 recruiting class also will have a big impact, one way or another, on the team next year. The group includes Malcolm Hill, a 6-5 wing from Belleville; two guards from Simeon, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate; athletic 6-9 forward Austin Colbert, from New Jersey, and 6-10, 240-pound true center Maverick Morgan, from Ohio.
``Right now they're all in play,'' Groce said. ``They have to go out and earn it. But we'll let those guys battle for [playing opportunities].''
Groce also has lost a staffer. Brandon Miller, who was a special assistant to Groce, is returning to Butler, his alma mater, as an assistant coach.