John Groce and his plan for Illinois

Since taking over as Illinois basketball coach, John Groce has done community service at a handful of middle schools, visited a children's hospital, had multiple breakfasts with donors, and spoken to groups of boosters over dinner.

And that was just last week.

Groce and new Illini football coach Tim Beckman began a nine-stop, statewide tour on Wednesday to get acquainted with fans and spread the message about their programs. After two days, Groce seemed overwhelmed by the response.

"They keep telling me how many people are supposed to show up at each event," Groce said Friday after stops in Chicago and Peoria. "But each time the number has turned out to be far greater than what was expected. These have been record crowds.

"That's what stands out to me the most, just how enthusiastic these people are."

Who can blame them?

Not many fan bases in the country were as hungry for a change as the one at Illinois, which finished 17-15 last season after losing 12 of its final 14 games. The Illini missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years, which prompted the firing of coach Bruce Weber.

The frustration continued when VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens turned down multimillion-dollar offers to take over in Champaign. Just seven seasons after appearing in the NCAA title game, Illinois was having a tough time hiring a coach.

Or at least that was the perception.

"Sometimes things play out in the media that are mostly fiction rather than fact," athletic director Mike Thomas said. "That gets people excited when there's really nothing to be excited or anxious about, because the process is playing out just as we expected."

Indeed, Thomas may not have landed his first choice when he lured Groce to Champaign, but it didn't take long for the AD to realize that Illinois had hardly "settled" by hiring the former Ohio University coach. A few days after Groce's introductory press conference, Thomas flew to New Orleans for the Final Four.

"People were seeking me out," Thomas said. "They wanted to tell me what a great hire it was. You talk to John for five minutes and you feel like you've known him a long time. That's how genuine he is."

Groce said he wasn't contacted about the job until the morning after his Ohio squad's overtime loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Groce said he had a message waiting for him when he and his family returned home on Saturday indicating that Thomas would like to speak with him. He spent most of the following day on the Internet familiarizing himself with the UI program.

"The more I read," Groce said, "the more excited I became. It seemed like a perfect fit."

An Indiana native, Groce is no stranger to Big Ten recruiting territory given his days as an assistant under Thad Matta at Xavier and Ohio State. But even more than that, Groce said he became convinced he could win in Champaign because, frankly, it's been done before.

Bill Self won two conference titles in three seasons at Illinois before leaving for Kansas in 2003. Two years later, Weber led the Illini to a 37-2 record and a spot in the NCAA championship game, where they lost to North Carolina. Weber, though, could never get Illinois past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament after that.

"We can return to that level," said the 40-year-old Groce. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here in the first place."

One of the biggest issues plaguing Weber during his final seven seasons was his inability to land top-tier talent from Chicago, which is known for producing some of the top high school prospects in the country. Standouts such as Derrick Rose (Memphis), Anthony Davis (Kentucky) and Sherron Collins (Kansas) all spurned the Illini for out-of-state schools.

Groce sounds certain that he'll be able to have an impact in the Windy City. A standout recruiter, Groce helped bring Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Deshaun Thomas to Ohio State. And he turned widely overlooked Chicago prospect D.J. Cooper into a star at Ohio.

"Some people see [Chicago] as an obstacle," Groce said. "I see it as an opportunity. If you're the state school and you've got a city the size of Chicago, with all of the tradition, and the good high school and AAU coaches … I see it as an advantage. It doesn't mean we're going to get everyone.

"But I've got a lot of confidence that we're going to be able to get our fair share. We'll be able to get the right ones that belong at Illinois."

As excited as he is about his new opportunity, Groce knows things won't be easy in his first year. Standout center Meyers Leonard left school two years early for the NBA draft, and sophomore Tracy Abrams is the only point guard on the Illini roster.

Groce, who wants to play up-tempo, is also concerned with a lack of experience in the frontcourt, where players such as Tyler Griffey and Ibby Djimde need to step up. Forward Sam McLaurin, who averaged 10 points and 7.5 rebounds as a junior at Coastal Carolina last season, has transferred to Illinois and will be eligible to play immediately. Groce has one more scholarship to give and said he'll use it "judiciously." He said he's already passed on a couple of players who wouldn't have been good long-term fits for the program.

"We're not taking any short cuts," Groce said. "This isn't about Year 1. This is about a long journey."

One of the keys to taking the next step, Groce said, will be forming a sense of toughness and togetherness -- "T-n-T," he calls it -- among a group of players who often appear cliquish. Some of the reports Groce is getting about the Illini's habits in pickup games have caused him concern. He said the six freshmen on the roster are always on the same team.

"Those six freshmen have a unique bond," Groce said. "They came in together and went through a lot together. But we've got to find a way to integrate those two groups and form a team with our guys where we're all on the same page. That's what tipped me off, where I felt like togetherness and toughness was an issue."

Groce said that watching game film from last season was enough to indicate his players need to get tougher. Illinois lost seven games by five points or less.

"Toughness is being able to finish games, finish possessions, being able to fight through adversity when you get popped in the mouth," Groce said. "Being able to do those types of things is more mental than physical. We need to be finishers. We need to finish everything we do. Defensive possessions, offensive possessions, a class, a workout. That's a mentality of toughness."

And Groce knows the Illini won't be able to survive in the Big Ten without it.

Indiana is already being hailed as the nation's No. 1 team entering the 2012-13 season. Ohio State is fresh off an appearance in the Final Four, Michigan is in the ESPN.com way-too-early top five, Michigan State is almost always in the NCAA title mix, and Wisconsin and Purdue are Top 25 mainstays.

"It's a war every night," Groce said. "If you're in the top third of this league, it probably means you're in the Top 25 nationally and in the mix for some special things.

"We've been there before and we can get there again. There's no question that it's not going to be easy. But anything in life that's worthwhile usually isn't."