HAMPAIGN — If John Groce had taken over at Illinois a couple of years sooner, the Starbucks on Green Street in Campustown might have made enough of a profit to not concern itself with lagging business during the upcoming winter break.
“When we started working together a few years ago at Ohio, he was drinking a cup of coffee every couple of hours,” UI assistant Dustin Ford said.
Fortunately the first-year Illinois coach’s favorite coffeehouse is going to find a way to stay afloat as he continues to curtail his habit.
“I’m having it in the morning, trying to keep it to one cup a day,” Groce said. “I’ve had a couple here recently where I’ve had two.”
Other than that, Groce has remained consistent in his approach to just about everything else he does.
“His eating routine, sleeping, nap, I think everything he does is the same,” senior guard D.J. Richardson said.
The 41-year-old, who led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season, received thundering applause from a group of 6- to 12-year-olds and their parents Wednesday during a clinic at Ubben Basketball Complex. That’s after he told the group that his 10th-ranked Illini would make them proud when the ball goes up today for the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis against No. 12 Missouri (5 p.m., ESPN2).
“I’m told it’s a big game,” Groce told them.
But he’s preparing his 12-0 Illini for the 9-1 Tigers the same as he would if they were playing a winless Division III team.
“He thinks everything out, has a system for how he wants to do everything all the time,” said Ford, who has been an assistant during all five of
Groce’s seasons as a head coach. “He’s thought about it, planned about it, thought about it again, planned it again and now we’re going to execute it.
“That’s everything from coaching to recruiting to how he handles our players. He’s consistent with everything he does and that’s why he’s really, really good.”
That Illinois, which was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten in a preseason poll of league media, is off to its best start since Dee Brown and James Augustine were on campus hasn’t changed a thing.
Groce and his staff prepare for games and translate the scouting report to the players. The morning after games, Groce breaks down the film, relays to the players and coaches what needs to be fixed and then it’s on to the next opponent.
It’s the same formula he used when leading the Bobcats to within a few plays of upsetting North Carolina for a trip to the Elite Eight in March.
“We basically do everything the same. We always do this, with our hand waving across to keep our heads, stay even,” Richardson said. “We try to do everything the same every game.”
This surprising start for the Illini hasn’t gone unnoticed nationally. A great deal of the credit has been thrown at the first-year UI coach who inherited a roster that lost 12 of its last 15 games to end the 2011-12 season — and lost a lottery pick in 7-foot center Meyers Leonard.
All that attention makes Groce uncomfortable.
“Credit goes to the players. Those are the guys that have to deal with transition and change and human nature. Most people don’t like change,” he said. “Another large portion of the credit goes to the assistant coaches and the support staff and all the people who spend so much time with our players outside basketball. I think that’s maybe the most important.”
Senior guard Brandon Paul is playing like an All-American. He’s one of three players in the country leading his team in scoring (18.8), rebounds (5.1), assists (3.5) and steals.
Fourth-year junior Joseph Bertrand already has made 11 three-pointers this season. He had three in his career entering the season. Senior Tyler Griffey has scored in double figures seven times this season. He had six games in double figures in the previous three seasons.
The list goes on.
“He’s a great guy, younger coach with a lot of energy. He relates to us pretty well,” Richardson said. “That’s kind of what I was expecting when I first met him. I figured he was going to let us play free. He just let us run up and down; that’s the kind of coach I was looking forward to and he definitely lets us do that.”
As meticulous as his preparation is, nothing can prepare Groce for the environment he will encounter tonight at the Scottrade Center.
Groce has developed a strong relationship with former Illinois coach Lou Henson, who along with Missouri’s Norm Stewart were the pioneers of the Braggin’ Rights game. But Groce hasn’t spoken with Henson about it. He’s received advice at every turn.
“From what I’ve gathered, it’s tough for anyone to explain it to you until you go through it,” he said. “Mike Thomas has said that to me. You think you understand it and you hear about how exciting it is and how electric the environment is, and when you’re there, it’s at another level. I’m looking forward to that.”