- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - There is a moment last season that Illinois coach John Groce tends to emphasize when he talks to his team.

It came in the 64-63 loss to Michigan that knocked the Illini out of the Big Ten tournament. Point guard Tracy Abrams’ shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim and Illinois, a bubble team, was headed to the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament.

It’s a moment the team learned something from that it might not have otherwise learned, Groce said during Thursday’s media day.

“When I talk to them in practice about that (shot) being a couple of inches short or us not being ready to play here in a particular home game that cost us,” he said. “The margin for error is small and that’s the point I’m trying to make to those guys about being detailed, disciplined, valuing everything that we do.”

Most of the team that watched Abrams’ shot come up short is back and started practice last week.

Eight of the 14 players on the Illinois roster were in uniform for the loss to Michigan, and two more, transfer guards Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby, were with Illinois but sitting out a year under NCAA rules.

That’s very different from the team Groce was assembling a year ago. That team had nine new faces, including five freshmen, all but one of whom averaged at least seven minutes a game out of necessity. Two, guards Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, finished the season as starters.

The one face missing as Illinois gets ready this fall is Abrams. He’s out for the season when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in September.

Abrams started all 35 games for last season’s Illini and was second on the team in scoring with 10.7 points a game. Illinois finished 20-15 and Rayvonte Rice led the team with 15.9 points a game.

Last season’s team leaned hard on Abrams and Rice for scoring that was hard to come by. Illinois averaged 64.2 points a game, 11th in what was then a 12-team conference (it’s now 14 with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers).

The Illini last season thrived on defense, giving up 62.2 points a game, second in the Big Ten. Groce says that commitment to defense won’t change, but he believes the replacement for what the team will miss with Abrams lies to a large degree in Starks.

Rice played some point guard last season, but Starks is playing nothing but point right now in practice, Groce said.

Starks is from Chicago but transferred from Oregon State, where he set the school record in all-time 3-point shots made with 185 over 97 games. The kind of defense required for the Big Ten, though, is still a work in progress.

“On the defensive side we need Starks to be a pit bull,” Groce said.

Without Starks, Rice might have to shoulder a big piece of the point guard load. Rice played 35 minutes a game last season, a number Groce said he wants to see drop.

That rest, Rice said, could be a good thing. And help Illinois get where it didn’t last season.

“We don’t like to make predictions, but we expect to be in the NCAA tournament this season,” Rice said.

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