ROSEMONT — The Big Ten is loaded with big-name coaches. The addition of John Groce to Illinois is the latest to bolster the league’s already-strong reputation. One guy who isn’t so happy to see Groce is Michigan’s John Beilein.
“He’s a very good coach,” Beilein said.
It was Groce’s Ohio Bobcats who upset the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament last season en route to the Sweet 16.
“They almost had North Carolina as well. One more foul shot and they probably would have been in the Elite Eight,” Beilein said. “They were very versatile and matching up with them was very difficult. They got us into closeout basketball the whole time, and I would assume he would do similar types of things (at Illinois). He had a great point guard (D.J. Cooper), and everyone else knew their roles after that.”
Preseason No. 1 Indiana didn’t need long to rebuild, something Illinois can use as motivation.
Indiana won six games in 2008-09, Tom Crean’s first year, but has returned to national prominence. The big reason for the resurgence is recruiting.
“Getting CODY Zeller was big for them, and that’s all it takes is to get one good one,” ESPN analyst and former Hoosiers player and coach Dan Dakich said.
Indiana has controlled its own state in terms of recruiting. Groce will need to have success with the high school programs in Illinois to create a similar effect.
“It’s a different state. Illinois, you’ve got under I-80 and above it. You’ve got a different dynamic,” Dakich said. “When you look at what interests fans at a place like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, those state schools, people like to see the best players stay in state. There isn’t any question that is probably John’s first priority, and I’m sure he’s going to have some success.”
Groce has maintained that the six-hour radius from Champaign will continue to be his staff’s priority in recruiting, not just the Chicagoland area.
Indiana locked up the state while in-state foe Purdue was at the top of its game. Illinois now is trying to rebuild while the Michigans, Ohio States, Michigan States and Purdues are entering the Land of Lincoln for prep talent.
“Recruiting is always a challenge,” Groce said. “The league is as stable as it’s ever been, certainly dating back to ’04 when I first entered the league as a coach. I can’t control who’s coaching at what school. I have great respect for the coaches in the league and the players in this league. I don’t go to practice every day and say to myself, ‘Such and such coach is here and they got this guy.’ I can’t control that. I’m more concerned about our guys, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and I choose to let my mind be consumed and absorbed with those things.”
Senior guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson represented the Illini along with Groce at media day. It was the last go-around for the duo of 1,000-point scorers.
“I’m just trying to have fun. It’s my last time up here, so I’m enjoying it,” Richardson said. “It’s fun to get up here and spend some time with some of the players from the other schools.”
Richardson and Paul were named two of the team’s four captains, Groce said Thursday. The others were sophomore Tracy Abrams and senior transfer Sam McLaurin. The captains were voted on by the team.
“We’ve been getting better in practice, and we’re just looking forward to getting started,” Richardson said. “We’ve been working hard and this is it for us, so we’re trying to make the most of it.”
Paul drew raves from the contingent for his black-and-white dress shoes.
“I heard they were popular on Twitter,” Paul said.
Groce shared a brief moment with Ohio State coach Thad Matta in between interview sessions at the Hyatt Regency. It’s a relationship Groce cherishes after spending eight seasons working as an assistant to Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State.
“I credit him a great deal. I’ve had a lot of great influences. Thad certainly is one of the primary ones,” Groce said. “Todd Lickliter is one of them; he was my high school coach. Paul Patterson, Sean Miller, Brad Stevens, Alan Major, Archie Miller. I’ve been very fortunate to be around great coaches, work for great coaches, work with them and have really, really good players. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be at Illinois if that wasn’t the case.”
When Bruce Weber was the coach at Illinois, he disliked playing against his former player and good friend Matt Painter. Groce shares a similar sentiment when it comes to Matta.
“We’re friends on a professional level and on a personal level,” Groce said. “I don’t think that’s changed a whole lot. We’ve known each other since I was in high school. I had a lot more hair then. My wife took our two boys to see ‘How to Train a Dragon’ over in Columbus, saw Thad. Now that you’re in the same league, you don’t share as much professionally or recruiting, but friends is probably the best way to characterize it.”
The reception for first-year Illinois football coach Tim Beckman hasn’t been favorable among fans. It’s something Groce, another first-year Illinois coach, has noticed.
“I do want to remind everybody that Coach is in Year 1, and he’s seven games in,” Groce said. “Rome’s not built in one day. That’s the first thing.”
Groce isn’t concerned about a similar backlash if things don’t go as well early in his first year as some fans might expect.
“You’ve got to have a thick skin in this profession,” Groce said. “I tell the players regardless of what’s said, written, the disposition other people have, believe it or not, you’re not scum. At the same time, no matter how much they pat you on the back, you are not a rock star. It’s somewhere in the middle. If I’m going to expect that disposition from the players, our staff has to have that disposition. I try not to get too caught up in that.”