Illini, Groce hopes to bury bad memories left by last season

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — On the road recruiting recently, a song came on Illinois coach John Groce's car radio about things best left in the past, Randy Travis' "Digging Up Bones."

At Friday's media day, Groce said he wouldn't be digging much into a chaotic 2015-16 season that ended with a 15-19 record, three arrests and what seemed like endless injuries.

"We're not doing that, we're moving on," Groce said.

But the remains of last season, Illinois' first losing season since 2008, were everywhere Friday.

Before he took question from reporters, the fifth-year coach updated the health of the half-dozen key players who either missed some or all of last season with serious injuries or are out now.

And he talked about how much the team would miss guard Kendrick Nunn, one of the three Illini players to be arrested last season. The other two, senior guard Jaylon Tate and redshirt sophomore forward Leron Black are both still on the team while Nunn, after pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery, was kicked off the team and transferred to Oakland. A domestic battery charge against Tate was dropped while Black pleaded guilty to misdemeanor aggravated assault and will sit out six games this season.

"I've gotten to the point where very little surprises me," Groce said with a laugh, adding that he thought the team two seasons ago went through enough when point guard Tracy Abrams was lost for that season with a torn Achilles tendon.

As Abrams worked his way back from that in 2015, he tore an anterior cruciate ligament and was forced to sit out the 2015-16 season. His injury was the first thing that went wrong for last season's Illini.

But, barring any other injuries or setbacks for Malcolm Hill, who is nursing an infected blister and should be back next week, or Jalen Coleman-Lands, who is out through this month with a broken bone in his hand, Groce should have his deepest, most complete team since 2013-14.

His first recruits at Illinois — a class that included Hill, Tate and Nunn and was among the top 25 in the country — are all seniors.

Abrams is back and, Groce says, healthy. That gives Illinois a handful of potential choices at point guard, something last season's team lacked.

And graduate-transfer center Mike Thorne Jr. was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA after going down early last season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Most of the players, like Groce, say they don't want to talk about last season, what it was like as the roster grew shorter with injuries or seeing teammates arrested.

"I've pretty much got amnesia about all of that right now," said Abrams, who is 24 and who in five-plus years on campus already has bachelor's and master's degrees.

Most of them talked Friday about wanting to do "something special" in the season that will start Nov. 11 against Southeast Missouri State. None of them were eager to define what that might be, but Groce assumes they all talk among themselves about getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, his first season at Illinois.

For Black, though, special starts simple, with the fact that he's still on the roster.

He was already out injured when he was arrested in February after threatening a bar bouncer with a knife. The moment he acted, he said, he knew he was making a mistake. One that might cost him.

"I'm just not taking anything for granted because it all could have been taken away pretty easily," he said.


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: @davidmercerAP