Klee's Corner: Of Groce, Spoonhour and the Assembly Hall

John Groce got his first look at his Illinois roster during spring workouts.

Most of the players left campus after final exams in early May. Guards Joseph Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice were in town for most of the month, while D.J. Richardson recently returned, the coach said. The rest of the roster is expected in C-U later this week.

"Those (three) guys come over (to Ubben) quite a bit. And we're getting to know those guys even better than we already do," Groce said. "We can always learn more about one another and get closer and more cohesive. The more you get to know your players, the easier it is to coach them. Right now I'm excited to get the rest of those guys back with them."

Groce, who has been on the job for roughly nine weeks, said the team would begin workouts June 11 — the first day of summer classes.

"Toughness and togetherness. I think those two things — developing that side of our culture in everything we do — and being finishers (will be priorities)," he said. "Being guys that are accountable toward one another and doing the right thing the right way and doing it consistently. That will start right away when they get back."

***

When Illinois decided last week 2013 recruit Jalen James wasn't in its plans, the situation reminded of another point guard who recently experienced a change of direction.

And Bobo Drummond was a teammate of James at La Lumiere and with Illinois Wolves.

Drummond initially signed with SIU before requesting a release after Barry Hinson replaced Chris Lowery in Carbondale. He then signed with Wright State. That scenario was different than James', however, in that the move was Drummond's decision.

"It's good that Jalen got it done now instead of later," Illinois Wolves director Mike Mullins said. "Bobo had to ask permission to change schools. Regardless of how you're playing or whatever, you still want to go to a place where you're most comfortable."

***

With the departure of Isaac Chew, Illinois is on the hunt for a third assistant coach.

And the ultimate choice could come down to which factor Groce prefers: fit or perception. A hire based on fit might be an assistant familiar with Groce. A hire based on perception would be more likely to appease the masses calling for a Chicago guy.

If he can accomplish both, that's gravy. And if there's one thing learned about Groce in his first two months at Illinois — the Big Ten's youngest head coach isn't scared to test conventional thought and go his own way, against popular opinion.

Asked Thursday if he would base the hire on ties to Chicago, Groce said, "I think it's something to consider, for sure. For me right now the biggest thing is I want to get a guy who wants to be at Illinois, who understands what it means to be at a special place like Illinois. That's more important to me, regardless of where they're from."

Here are three more possibilities — in addition to the usual suspects who are discussed often.

One is Daniyal Robinson, an assistant at Houston. The Rock Island native also recruited Chicago as an assistant at Iowa State, signing Whitney Young standout Chris Colvin, for one example. He recently helped Houston secure a nationally ranked recruiting class.

Another is former Illinois State assistant Paris Parham, who has numerous ties in Chicago, in part due to his time in the high school and AAU ranks in the city. Another is Bradley assistant Willie Scott, who is a Bradley and Chicago King graduate.

Several AAU figures in the city have endorsed one or more of those candidates. And there are others under consideration. Groce's new iPhone was blowing up with suggestions and lobbyists immediately after the Chew-to-Marquette development.

"I want to make sure we get the right guy," Groce said. "I'm not in any rush."

***

Finally, Groce has a break.

This weekend he left town with his wife, Allison, for a brief vacation and his brother's wedding. That follows a wild three-month itinerary that included the MAC tournament with Ohio, NCAA tournament first and second weekends, transition to Illinois, hiring a staff at Illinois, the April evaluation period as the Illinois coach, a return to Athens for the Ohio basketball banquet and a nine-stop tour on the Illini Coaches Caravan.

"As I get away it gives me some time to think through things and kind of iron them out in terms of philosophically which direction I want to go (with the assistant coach vacancy)," Groce said.

The Groce family is all in C-U. Their children — Conner (6) and Camden (2) — were scheduled to arrive Saturday.

"(They are) in the process in trying to sell or buy (a home)," he said. "If anyone out there wants to buy a home in Athens, Ohio, I've got a good lead on one."

***

Here's a twist on housing arrangements for a Division I head coach.

"I'm living like a college kid for a while," EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. "We're in the dorm."

And for the short term, that's just fine with Spoonhour, who was introduced as EIU's head coach April 9. Aside from an occasional swing through a Charleston bowling center, the former Moberly Area Community College coach has been too busy to figure otherwise.

The day after he was hired to replace Mike Miller was the first day coaches could be on the road for the April evaluation period. He used that time wisely, ultimately signing four prospects who will join the roster next season. Miller's staff had signed two more.

"I like what we did right off the bat," Spoonhour said.

There was a method to his signing madness. Though EIU needed immediate-impact additions — the Panthers went 12-17 — he didn't want to sign all junior college players. In that case, the staff would've been retooling again in two years after their graduation.

Instead, the Panthers will welcome three high school prospects, two two-year juco standouts and one junior college product with three seasons of eligibility remaining. That allowed for roster balance over the next few years.

Spoonhour also didn't want to pigeonhole his recruiting into position-specific targets. Like an NBA team with a late-round draft pick, he found the best players available.

"When you get into taking a new job, everybody wants to do really well right away. And we do, too," Spoonhour said. "But you can fall into the trap of patching stuff together and saying, 'We need a forward. We better take a forward.'

"Instead of doing that, I wanted to find good players regardless of where they played. I didn't care what their size or position was. I just wanted guys that could play."

Among the returning players, Centennial product Josh Piper is one Spoonhour will lean on in his first season as coach. The 6-foot-8 forward played in all 29 games as a freshman, averaging 4.3 points in 13.5 minutes per game.

"Pipe's got a chance," Spoonhour said. "He can score over either shoulder. That's big. He's got to get more physical, more assertive. He got knocked around a little bit last year, physically. That will come with age.

"I really like the guy. Really smart kid. And in the workouts, I liked the stuff he can do. He tried hard. And he can catch it. When you're 6-8, 6-9, some guys are just playing because what else are they going to do? But he cares about it. We're counting on him."

***

Consistent winning has been an issue in Charleston. The Panthers have carved out a winning record once in the past 10 seasons (19-12 in 2009-10). The necessary resources and administrative support haven't been there, and it scared away multiple potential candidates.

But Spoonhour pursued the position, in part, because he witnessed firsthand that winning can happen at EIU. Jay was a teenager when his father, the late, great Charlie Spoonhour, was the coach at Southwest Missouri State.

"When I was a kid, my dad's teams were really, really good. And they had battles against Eastern Illinois," Jay Spoonhour said. "Kevin Duckworth and Jay Taylor and those guys — those were great, great teams. People outside of Charleston, they may have forgotten.

"But anybody that was in the league at that time, they knew how good Eastern Illinois was."

Spoonhour got the job after a refreshingly transparent coaching search at EIU. For example, the finalists were brought on campus for interviews with the public.

And Spoonhour took his father's approach in jumping into the EIU job.

"If a place has won before, then it can win again," he said. "That's what my dad said about St. Louis U. And he was right. And it's really true."

***

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas indicated the school hopes to have blueprints for the Assembly Hall renovations by the end of the summer.

There also have been plans for UI officials to tour other regional facilities as a way to gather ideas. Some of the arenas on the visit list include Michigan's Crisler Center, Michigan State's Breslin Center, Purdue's Mackey Arena and Wisconsin's Kohl Center.

***

Among the guests at Thursday's Coaches Caravan stop at Bloomington Country Club: Illini great Lou Henson. Henson was in attendance with former assistant Mark Coomes.

Groce also made mention of Henson in reference to maintaining a sense of humility.

"One thing I really appreciated — and Rod Cardinal was the one that said it in reference to Coach Henson — Illinois was here long before I got to Illinois, and it's going to be here long after I'm no longer at Illinois, whenever that time is. It's about Illinois."

***

Spoonhour also has a connection to the new Illinois staff.

He was an assistant at St. Louis University when Jamall Walker, the new UI assistant, was the Billikens' point guard.

"Jamall was on the most frustrating team (1996-97) St. Louis U has ever had," Spoonhour said. "He was the point guard. And nobody around him could make a shot."

Then a program-changing prospect was added to the roster.

"Then playing with Larry Hughes, Jamall was like Isiah Thomas," Spoonhour joked. "He went from having a really rough year to having a great year."

Walker actually played against Illinois twice. In SLU's 57-51 win against Illinois in 1997, he had nine points, four rebounds and five assists. In Illinois' 70-65 win against SLU in 1998, the point guard had 12 points, three rebounds and five assists.

SLU advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1998. Hughes played one season there before becoming the eighth pick in the NBA draft.

"It makes a difference when you're passing the ball to a pro every time down the court," Walker said with a laugh. "That makes it a little easier on everybody."

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