CHAMPAIGN — It’s been a strange couple of weeks for the Illinois coaching staff. In the championship game at the Maui Invitational, John Groce was coaching against good friend Brad Stevens. Groce and Stevens were on staff together at Butler under Thad Matta.
The following game Groce was pitted against Gardner-Webb, which is coached by another good friend and college teammate, Chris Holtmann.
Tuesday’s game was another with ties among the coaching staffs.
Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter was Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford’s head coach when Ford was a four-year starter at Ohio from 1998 to 2001.
Ford also coached on Hunter’s staff at Western Carolina from 2006 to ’08.
“Obviously, I’m pretty close with Coach. I’ve known him since I was 12, 13 years old,” Ford said. “He recruited my brother (Bradley coach Geno Ford); he recruited me. We both played for him, both worked for him. I follow them anyway, so knowing their personnel and having familiarity with the program was good.”
The Gardner-Webb game and the Western Carolina game were scheduled before Ford and the rest of the coaching staff arrived at Illinois. If it were up to them, those games wouldn’t happen.
“You don’t want to play the guys you’re rooting for. When we’re not playing them, I’m rooting for Western Carolina, and they’re doing the same for us,” Ford said.
Ford didn’t talk to Hunter before the game — “he’s real intense,” Ford said. The two were expected to talk after the contest.
Ford said his coach would describe him as a tough player No. 1 and then a dirty player.
A new tradition Groce has started in his first year at Illinois is walking over to the Orange Krush cheering section after games to shake hands with the students. It’s a ritual the rabid fan section appreciates.
“It’s huge. When you add that personal aspect to it, we’re really able to go above and beyond in our support for Groce,” Orange Krush co-chair Preston Brown said. “I think that’s what it’s about. When you add those extra, sentimental aspects to being a fan you’re really able to move into that elite level. Groce, from Day 1, he said he wanted to interact with us and have a relationship with us.”
The Krush welcomed the new coach in the season opener against Colgate, doing an “Orange Hush,” remaining quiet until the Illini scored their 10th point, an homage to Groce’s alma mater, Taylor University, which does that once a year.
Orange Krush members also wore bald wigs earlier this season to honor the follicly challenged Illinois coach.
“We had 400 bald wigs. We wanted to help make him feel more comfortable in the Assembly Hall,” Brown said. “We might do it again. It got pretty expensive, so we can’t do it every game. We probably have about 150-200 left, so we’ll see if we can do it again.”
The big story in college basketball this week was the passing of Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus. Majerus took a leave from the Billikens prior to the season to tend to some medical issues. He died Saturday of heart failure at the age of 64.
Former Illini guard Sean Harrington spent one season as the director of basketball operations under Majerus at Saint Louis before assuming the same position at his alma mater from 2009 to ’12.
Those warm stories you’ve been hearing on television and reading in recent days is exactly who Majerus was, Harrington said.
“Everybody knows the basketball side of everything and all that is true,” Harrington said. “He’s by far the best basketball mind I’ve ever been around.
“He took us on a staff retreat that first season at Saint Louis. Every single person on that staff had never worked together; it was his first year, too. We went up to Milwaukee for three days and talked terminology and strategy, and what he talked about up there was unbelievable.”
Harrington said among the things Majerus discussed was the 11 different ways to defend a ball screen. He went through all 11 and never once looked at any notes.
That’s just the basketball side. Majerus was an even better person, according to Harrington.
A week after Harrington joined the staff, his uncle was killed in a plane crash. Majerus offered to pay his airfare to Florida, pay for his hotel and told him not to return until he was sure he was ready.
“He had never met my aunt and had flowers down in Florida for her before I could get there. He wrote her a note and had a charity that he donated money to have nuns pray over the family,” Harrington said. “Things like that, people never really saw or heard. He never did it for the public to see, that’s just who he was.”
Illinois will travel to Spokane, Wash., on Friday night for Saturday’s 9 p.m. (CST) game against No. 10 Gonzaga. The team will spend the night in Spokane after the game Saturday and return to Champaign on Sunday.
Director of basketball operations Mark Morris said Groce wants the team to get a good night’s rest after the late game Saturday ahead of Tuesday’s game against Norfolk State at the Assembly Hall.
Mike Shaw hadn’t played at all in Illinois’ previous two games, but the 6-foot-8 forward checked in early in the first half and provided Illinois with good production in his three minutes Tuesday.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Chicago banked in a three-pointer on his first offensive possession and did plenty more to please his coach.
“I thought Shaw was good the time he was in there,” Groce said. “You can say he made the shot he took. He had a great hedge on a ball screen in front of the bench. He got his hands on a ball. I thought he was pretty good.”
A new ritual at Illinois is for the team’s leader in rebounds the previous day, whether it’s practice or a game, to wear a No. 40 jersey in practice. All-time rebounding leader James Augustine wore No. 40 at Illinois.
Shaw wore the number in Monday’s practice.
“He’s practiced pretty well the last couple days, and that’s kind of why I made the decision to go with him in addition to some foul trouble.”
Joseph Bertrand scored seven points off the bench, but he turned it over four times in 16 minutes, and Groce didn’t think it was one of his better games.
Myke Henry (nine points) and Sam McLaurin (five points, five rebounds) were among the reserves Groce praised afterward.
“I thought our bench was pretty good. JoJo, I just didn’t think he had it. Defensively, he had a few more mistakes than he makes tonight; he’s been better,” Groce said. “But, we would not be close to 9-0 without JoJo. We’ve got to get him playing better, and I’m sure he’ll be ready to go on Saturday.”