Groce Q&A: 'I hope it motivates them'

Groce Q&A: 'I hope it motivates them'

Nine days after his first Illinois team’s season came to an end with a gut-wrenching loss to Miami in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32, John Groce removes his blue sport coat and plops down on the oversized navy leather chair ­— complete with an orange block I logo stitched in the headrest — at his desk in his office at the Ubben Basketball Complex and contemplates his seemingly endless to-do list.

He’s got to find a replacement for special assistant Brandon Miller, who left to become a full-time assistant at Butler.

With only 10 scholarship players on next-year’s roster, Groce and his staff are figuring how best to use the three available scholarships they have to offer.

The three players who transferred out of the program — Mike Shaw, Devin Langford, Ibby Djimde — need a place to play. Shaw has since landed at Bradley, but the staff wants to help find Langford and Djimde a good fit.

There are media obligations. Not to mention, the six players currently on campus started workouts with the staff earlier in the week.

But for just a moment — one of the few he’s been able to breathe since taking the job just over a year ago — Groce is able to put all that on hold while he enjoys a bowl of chili at his desk.

“A police officer, made a bet with a guy before the season. The guy said, ‘No way in hell Illinois makes the NCAA tournament.’ The other said we would and if the other lost, he told (basketball secretary) Julie (Pioletti) he would make chili for the staff and bring it in to us,” Groce said.

The only thing that draws his attention away from the chili is the constantly buzzing iPhone, positioned on his spacious desk near a Starbucks cup, and a quick visit from assistant coach Dustin Ford.

“Dustin, you’ve got to get some of this chili, man. It is off the charts,” Groce says.

After two bowls, it’s back to tackling the mountain of responsibilities. In a couple of days, Groce will be in Atlanta, speaking at an NABC convention at the Final Four. He’s been there as an assistant coach with Ohio State in 2007. He wants to return to college basketball’s signature weekend in the future with a game or two for which to prepare.

“I like where we are and I like the direction of our program, but we’ve still got work to do,” Groce said. “We’re just going to keep working and keep trying to build and seeing where that takes us.”

How long did it take to get over the Miami loss?
You always remember that last one. I remember last year when we lost to North Carolina. Coaches remember losses more than they remember wins, it’s crazy. The biggest thing for me, and I said this after the game, I enjoyed the team so much that the biggest thing it meant was we didn’t get to go back to practice and there wasn’t another game. The crazy thing about college basketball when you’re in that setting, when you get beat, it’s so final. There’s no precursor to it, or a prelude, or a warmup for it. That part makes it hard. Reflecting back on it, those kids did a great job. I thought they played their butts off that game, they played really hard. They competed, they left it all out there. They didn’t leave anything. You don’t want to get beat, but you want to play well and with that type of togetherness and effort, and I thought all those things were there.

Looking back at the season, you kept it mostly positive, but is there one thing you would like to go back and change if you could?
That’s a good one. I’d like to change our start to the Big Ten schedule. No one wants to get themselves in a hole like that, but we did. I give our guys a lot of credit, they climbed out of it. They were pretty tough to do that, which was great. Maybe long term that’s what this group needed because of everything they’ve been through to know they could do that. They basically did it twice; they did that to start the year and then they did it at that point in time, and I think it’s really hard to do two times in one year, and I think it shows a lot of toughness. They grew up a lot and bought in. Whatever it is they’re doing in life, the next 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, they remember that whole deal where we had to fight some odds and stay together, not flinch and grind it out. I tell them it’s not the most talented person, player, organization that wins whatever they’re being challenged with, it’s the most determined. And they were pretty determined, and hopefully they take something from that that affects the rest of their lives.

That disposition within you to always stay positive, where does that come from?
No one’s ever asked me that. Maybe my parents. We’ve always been kind of wired that way. We’re not rearview mirror people, we’re always looking forward. We’re solution-based. My initial thought would be from within. Maybe that’s just how I’m wired.

Was there a time this season where you had to fight through some stuff yourself to get back to being positive?
I think adrenaline more than anything else gets you through Year 1. Everything is new, I mentioned that part to the players. It’s the same thing for the staff. A year ago this time, I didn’t know where I was getting my coffee. Now, I can get there in my sleep. My dry cleaning, schedule, routine. I’ve always said it takes a year to totally get acclimated and it takes two to get totally comfortable. I don’t know if there was any one thing. Obviously, that Big Ten stretch when we started the way we did, that was the most challenging this year.

What did you notice being the biggest difference between being a head coach in the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten?
I’ve said this before, and in a good way, the overall management of time and the demands on time. It’s a special place and you’ve got a lot of balls you have to juggle that you’re throwing up in the air, more so than when I was at Ohio. In terms of game management and game prep and how we practice and how we coached our teams our four years at Ohio and how we did all that, those are all similar. The management of your time on a daily basis when you’re sitting at this desk can be challenging. You have to balance it and make sure that you’re dealing with what’s important now. Lou Holtz calls it “WIN” — What’s Important Now. I think prioritization is a big thing.

You’ve been to the Final Four as a coach and you’re going there this weekend, is it an empty feeling going there and not preparing for a game?
Yeah, it just motivates you more. I think my wife (Allison) enjoys going more than anything. We get a chance to spend a weekend, just her and I. I enjoy going, you get to see a lot of coaches and familiar faces, especially the ones that maybe have been in our coaching family at some point in time. Chris Holtmann, for example, I’m looking forward to seeing him and his wife, we don’t get to see them at all. From that standpoint, it’s good. But you’re so competitive once you get in the tournament, you advance, for me, it’s hard to watch it holistically. I’ll watch some of the guys from our coaching families and their teams. In general, I’ll probably go to both national semifinal games , but like I always do, I come back on Sunday and get ready for next week.

What do you do out there besides go to the games?
I’m speaking at a clinic for the NABC and I’ll have different dinner appointments and lunch appointments. Some social in nature to catch up with Chris Holtmann, guys like that, and some will be business, whether it’s development or whatever. It’s a little bit of a mixture of both.

How have Allison and your two boys (Conner, Camden) adjusted to life in Champaign?
They’ve enjoyed it. The transition has been easy. My wife’s an all-star. She gets it and does a great job of keeping everyone in our coaching family very engaged and just does a great job in that aspect, which is a blessing. She loves the community, our kids are doing well in school, we love the college town, we love the proximity to our families; it’s been a great fit. We’ve had some transitions in the past and this has been a relatively easy transition, to be honest, and that’s been a blessing.

About a year ago now, you were being hired here and the response wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. With where you are now and the buzz, do you feel like that’s faded and you’ve been welcomed?
Yeah, but I didn’t really get too caught up into that in the beginning. I’m one of those guys, like I tell the players all the time, who just worries about controlling what you can control. I had a lot of confidence in our system and the way we do things and the staff that I hired. A lot of the guys I worked with in the past and they kind of knew the blueprint of how we were going to do things. I had confidence in our recruiting and how that would move forward. We just kind of grinded it out every day and just do what we do. I knew that we could get the thing going in a positive direction. The critics and stuff, I don’t get caught up in that stuff; I can’t control that.

That’s the value of having the season end the way it did, even though you lost, a positive came out even though you were matched with a tough team, you played them down to the wire, do you think your kids walk out of there with a good feeling about the NCAA experience, guys like Nnanna (Egwu) and Tracy (Abrams)?
It was tough, that day was tough, it was hard. It was hard to be in that locker room after the game because guys had invested so much. I asked them to not save anything that particular day and to look back 10 years from now and say you gave everything you had. I’ve watched the film painfully, but they gave everything they had, I mean everything. For that, I was proud of them. Having said that, I think in some ways, the loss also motivated some of those guys you’re talking about. I’m one of those guys that really believes success breeds success. I think those guys really kind of tasted that experience, some of them for the first time, and it’s motivated them. I hope it motivates them a lot here in the offseason because we’ve got to get a lot better.

You’ve got six players to practice, what are your practice plans, schedule? Can you bring in anyone to work against them?
We have two hours a week in which we can work with them and those workouts are usually individually done with their position coach. Some of them are group workouts that we’ll organize and run here. It is a short window and this is the first place I’ve been in several years where we’re on semesters, so usually the spring is a lot longer. We have basically four weeks, plus or minus, to work with them prior to the week before finals, which then we’re not able to work with them that particular week. They have final exam week and then they’ll have a chance to go home for a couple weeks, plus or minus, then we’ll get them back in the summer. We’ve still got the guys from Brandon (Paul), D.J. (Richardson) some of those guys are around as well, that will give us a chance to play when those guys have open gym. But our biggest two areas of concentration right now are the skill development and the weight room. We don’t need 10 at a time to do either one of those, so we’re really locked in on those two areas right now. How do we make our guys better from a skill perspective? What do we add to their game? What needs enhanced? And then what are we doing in the weight room to become a stronger and more conditioned basketball team. Those are really our two focus points in the spring.

D.J. and Brandon are two guys who might have professional aspirations, how much are you involved in preparing them for workouts?
We’ll be involved as much as they want us to be. I know both those guys are working out with our staff, they’ve asked to be worked out by our staff. I’ve got a lunch appointment tomorrow with one of them and then another one maybe before I leave for Atlanta, so I’m very involved as much as they want us involved. I love those guys, they know that. We’ll do whatever we can to help them, that’s our job as coaches to try to help each player as best we can become they best they can be to help them get to where they want to go. We’ll continue to do that with D.J. and Brandon, not only now in the immediate. I told them they’re stuck with me for the rest of their lives. Those guys are important to the university, they’re important to the basketball program. They have a special place, certainly, in our staff’s heart. Their buy-in was unbelievable. Those guys have left a great foundation for us moving forward and we’ll always be appreciative of that and help them anyway we can.

Did you play that kind of role at Ohio State when you had guys like Mike Conley and Greg Oden?
I would say so. It’s kind of the only way we know, that’s our staff. We’re very relationship-based. This is a big-picture deal for us. Obviously, we want to do really well and want them to do well during the time they’re here at the University of Illinois but we talk a lot with them about the next 40 years of their life, the next 30 years of their life, not just their time here at Illinois. We want to be involved as much as we can to help them if they allow us to be.

You had three transfers last week, how does that conversation go?
It’s hard. I love all those guys. I want to help all those guys. I think the world of all three of them. Just like I mentioned with D.J. and Brandon, they’re no different, we’re gonna do everything we can to help those guys find the best fit for what they want and that’s our job. Those guys will always be a part of my family. I’ve said that before, part of the Illinois family; they played here. We’re in that mind-set and mode as a staff that we’re gonna help every guy to the best of our ability get what they want and find a great fit and that’s true of all three of those guys.

Were you surprised that Devin left?
I wouldn’t say surprised. All three of them played their role this past year really well. Sometimes guys want bigger roles, that doesn’t make them any less of a person or student. Those three guys are all terrific in both those areas. I wouldn’t say overly surprised. Obviously, the biggest thing with us at this point in time is not dwelling on the past or looking in the rearview mirror, but here’s what they want, we’re gonna help them get where they want to go and we want them to be successful.

You have (three) scholarships open, do you plan to use any of them?
Aggressively every day, recruit every day. All options from fifth-years to fourth-years to pushing them to ‘14 and ‘15, they’re all open right now, all those scenarios are possibilities.

Some of us don’t understand the fifth-year market and I’m sure you study it. What’s it like? You got Sam McLaurin last year. Is it 10, 20, 30 guys?
I don’t know what the total number is. I know they’re highly sought-after. A coach said to me the other day they’re almost as highly sought-after as Top 50 players in the country in the early signing period. It’s kind of become that way a little bit. Especially if you can find the right guy, the right fit that meshes your culture and is a good fit for your program. We’ll have our antennas up. We recruit every day. A guy I used to work for used to say it’s like shaving. If you don’t do it every day, you’re gonna look pretty shabby. That’s how recruiting is, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves every day and you’ve got to be thinking about it every day and we’re gonna continue to get quality people in our basketball program as well as quality players.

Do fifth-year players seek you out, do you seek them out, or is it kind of mutual?
I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily mutual, it’s probably one or the other. It depends on if you have a previously established relationship or not. I’d say most of it is us seeking them out.

If you’re going for a fifth-year guy, it’s an immediate need. What would you be looking for in a fifth-year guy?
We have a lot of needs. We have five incoming freshmen, and other than that we have six guys returning from this year’s team out of 14. I don’t know if I could necessarily say we wouldn’t take this need with a guy if he’s a good fit in terms of the people part, or the person part of the student-athlete part. I think we’ve got a lot of areas that we can shore up. We’re gonna be a little bit less experienced than we were this year. We’ve got some young guys coming in, it’s gonna be fun. We’ve got to build our team. I’ve always said as soon as you add or subtract a player from any team, the dynamic of the team, to a certain degree, changes. Just by the addition or subtraction of one player it changes. That’s what’s pretty cool about coaching, trying to get guys to sacrifice together and become a team. Right now, is the Year 2 team a team yet? No. The freshmen aren’t even on campus yet, they don’t get here till June. What we see is a roster, or depth chart. I quantify “team” a little bit differently than most. Are we tough? Are we together? Do we trust one another yet? Do we trust the system? Obviously, our recruits have knowledge of the system through the recruiting process, but do they know the ins and outs of the returnees? No, and they shouldn’t. We’ve got some work to do there and it’s gonna be exciting.

When you came here last year, you said you hoped to play as many as nine or 10.
Yeah, long term, that’s still the same, that hasn’t changed. That’s what we’d like to do. The one thing I will say, and I really believe this, players play players; they earn it. We want to get to that point where we can play that. I think it’s great for depth, I think it’s great for the tempo that we want to play. I think it’s great for the attacking style we want to play defensively. I think we can be even more aggressive. I think we finished the year, Dustin told me, No. 1 in the league in forcing turnovers. I think we can be even more aggressive with depth.

Losing seniors and the transfers, you’re going to have five freshmen coming in. It’s hard to tell now, but how do you see their roles shaking out?
Right now, they’re all in play. We’ve recruited all of them to have that opportunity to play. They’ve got to go out and earn it. There’s opportunity there. We’ll let those guys battle for that. The more depth you have, your practices are better, everybody gets better. We had that situation in my third and fourth year at the last place I was at and I think it benefits everybody a great deal. We should have more depth. Who kind of rises to the top? Everybody will have that opportunity.

Do you have any early candidates to take over for Brandon Miller?
Not at this point. First of all, Brandon, I think the world of him. I coached him and have coached with him and he was a big part of our staff this past year. Our wives are close, Brandon and I are close. He did a fantastic job. I’m excited about the opportunity he has at Butler. It’s his alma mater. He played there, he stayed within our coaching family. I think the world of Brad (Stevens) and the way he does things. We wish him nothing but the best. I think it’s a great move for his natural maturation for what he wants to do as a coach and I fully support it. No different than the players, my mind-set is the same with the coaches. My job is to know what each guy wants and where they want to go and what they’re goals are, and my job is not to hold them back, my job is to help them get there. That’s what I’m called to do as the head coach. I’m really excited for him and his family.

Brandon took this position after a year away from the game, did he just get the itch again?
Brandon is a little different that from the standpoint for him, I think that might have been part of it, that itch, but it’s where he’s working: played there, coached there, he’s an alum there, the people that are there; people are really important to Brandon. I think he feels very comfortable in that setting and I think he’ll do a great job there.

Is it fair to say because his boys are getting older that Holly can kind of manage them and that’s why he took the job?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask Holly. She plays a lot of zone, one versus two, and my wife does as well. I think all coaches’ wives play zone when you have multiple kids, and she does a great job with Mason and Michael. She’s got broad shoulders, I’ll say that.

Do you want to get someone you’ve had ties to in the past, or would you like to get somebody with ties to the program?
I’m pretty open-minded other than the fact that the one thing I’m going to be pretty stringent on is I want a very similar profile to what Brandon brought to the table. What I mean by that is the ability to do advanced scouting, the knowledge of the game he had, I thought was really, really helpful. The way he operated video was really great, really helped us in putting things together. His background and different experiences he had. I thought he was pretty well-rounded. In a perfect world, I’d want someone with a similar profile.

Talk a little bit about the schedule and will you have another game at the United Center besides the UIC game?
We have one game there and we’re gonna continue. Mike (Thomas) and I talk a lot about it philosophically, we love playing up there, we’re gonna continue doing that. Under contractual obligation, we’re playing them for the fifth time. Whatever that contractual obligation is, we’re committed to fulfilling it and that’s the game we’ll be playing up there this next year.

Does the formation of this team, the way you see it, affect schedule?
Without question. Each team, as we look at it, I’ve always said recruiting and scheduling are really important. As we look at it every year, we attack it, not just this team. Every year we attack it we’re looking at it through the eyes of our team, what our team needs the most. That doesn’t change, that lens we look through is the same every single year, trying to do that. We’ve talked about it numerous times with the schedule, we have a very unique schedule relative to the rest of the league. We’re certainly not apologizing for it, we love it. I love the United Center, it’s great, we do that every year. We play Missouri every year, that’s a fantastic series. We played the ACC/Big Ten Challenge every year. Those things are in stone. I don’t know how many Big Ten teams have three things in stone like that. They have one, maybe two, but not three. Obviously, the addition of some schools to our league here in another year, does that add games? That remains to be seen how that affects schedule. We’re cognizant of that and aware of it and we’ll continue to do the best we can to put one together that fits each team that makes a lot of sense.

Do you consider this a young team?
I would say it’s a young team relative to what we just coached, for sure. Regardless of the age of our team, one of the things that Mike and I have talked a great deal about is trying to fix, correct ... we need more home games relative to what the rest of our league is playing. That’s our No. 1 priority with schedule moving forward. We tried to address that with this upcoming schedule and we’re gonna do that with future schedules as well.

How much will you rely on the returning players to instill their mentality into the freshmen when you’re not around?
We’ll rely on them a great deal, they’re experienced in our system and our culture. We’ve made a lot of strides with the culture piece, I think that’s as important as anything else. Those guys, I’m hoping they do show the freshmen the way in a lot of areas, that’s important. Tony Dungy calls it “regenerative leadership” when your peers start teaching the next set of guys and they leave then they get older and teach the next set of underclassmen. That’s called building a program and that’s what great programs have. Are we quite there yet? No, but we’ve been here a year. Those guys have figured quite a few of the things out, might not quite have it yet. This is the first real spring we’ve had with the, yesterday was the first time they’ve have the meetings in the spring like we had them. They hadn’t done that before, so they’re going through some things for the first time. I do think their experience in terms of what they brought to the table over the last 12 months will be really beneficial for the young guys.

You’re going to the Final Four this weekend, have you been able to watch any of the tournament?
A little bit here and there. Not necessarily a game in its entirety. For two reasons, one it’s kind of hard to watch games for me and then secondly, I’ve been really busy. I’ve got a lot going on.

What did you see from Rayvonte (Rice) sitting out this year? What can he bring?
The first thing is he had a great sit-out year. He’s right there. In my 19 years, I can maybe think of maybe one or two other players that were transfers that sat out and had a comparable year in terms of the improvement Rayvonte had from the time he got here to now. We’re excited about that. He still has a ways to go. He’s worked very, very hard. He’s done a good job in school, he’s lost 30-something pounds, dropped 5 percent in body fat. He’s gotten up a ton of shots in the offseason, he’s lifted his tail off. I think he’s in the best condition he’s been in since he’s been in college, in terms of cardiovascular. He’s really worked hard. That gives us a lot of optimism and for him right now it’s all about, “How can I get a little bit better?” Being a guy that takes that mind-set every day like he has throughout this past year and not resting on some of his successes he’s had in the weight room or skill stuff or in practices throughout this year, but continuing to drive himself to become even better and I think he’ll do that.

He’s going to be asked a lot, do you think his personality and his makeup allows him to do that without too much of a hitch?
He’s a tough kid. Dustin calls him a wolf. He’s a tough kid. I think he can handle it. He’ll need help, just like everybody else needs help and he’ll make mistakes just like we all do. At the end of the day, I know he’s going to compete, he’s going to take a lot of pride in putting on that jersey; I know he can’t wait to do that. He’s pretty excited and we’re excited to get him out there.

What kind of role do you think (Rice) will have?
He can play a big role in large part because he has the ability to affect the game in so many areas. He can rebound for his position. He can defend, he’s a great athlete. He’s physically strong, he can score, he can get to the free throw line. He’s very, very, very versatile, and I think because of that guys that have that kind of makeup on a given night, maybe his shot’s not going but he’ll get you on the glass and he’s a dominant defender out there. He does so many thing that can affect our basketball team because of his versatility. We expect a lot out of him and he expects a lot out of himself, he does, and I love that about him. He drives himself. He’s very motivated right now, we’re gonna continue to help him as a staff. I think he has a very bright future.

What developments do you want to see out of Joseph Bertrand next year?
We want to continue to develop his upper-body strength. We want to continue to develop his catch-and-shoot game, continue to tighten up his handle. We talked about a lot of different things and he shared a couple thoughts. JoJo will work hard — anything you ask him to do, he’ll do it. He’s a great kid, wants to be really good and obviously had a chance to be a huge part in what we did this year, and I think that’s motivated him as well as it has some of the other guys.

How would you assess the chances of using those scholarships, one or more for your roster for next year?

And you’re looking mostly at kids who are graduating and looking to transfer?
All options, to be honest. Like I said earlier, every possible scenario that you can imagine. Right now, it’s more about us trying to find the right fit for our program, the right fit for our university. Do they address needs? We’re looking at all options. Your question was, “If I was guessing, you have three scholarships, what are the chances I’m gonna use at least one of them this spring?” Very strong.

Can you talk specifically about Malcolm Hill and what development you’ve seen in him last year if you’ve been able to see him?
We’re excited about Malcolm because he’s such a great fit. From the standpoint when I first got here, he was really the second guy that came to campus. I sat down with him and I quickly learned how humble and hungry he is and how much he loves the University of Illinois. You watch him and you see tons of upside. He’s a really good player now and his best days are clearly ahead of him, especially when he adds strength to his frame. A little bit like Ray, who we were discussing earlier, Malcolm has an ability to get to the free throw line, he has midrange, he can shoot the ball, he’s very versatile, especially on the offensive end. One of the challenges for high school kids, regardless of who they are, is putting as much emphasis and importance on the defensive end as they do the offensive end. We’ll have more of a gauge of that in regards to Malcolm this summer as we will the other four freshmen. He’s certainly talented and we’re excited about having him in our program. I think he’s one of those guys where the sky’s the limit.

Is there any possibility that any of the freshmen will redshirt?
I don’t know. I never make that decision or even entertain that until we get through the first couple weeks of practice. We want spring, we want summer, we want fall practice. I always try to gauge it at that point in time. I think it’s way too early to tell. In the ‘90s we had a kid who was working out in skill at a place I was at and he was terrific. If you’d have asked the staff and at that time we could only do skill work and a small sample size, there’s no question he’s going to play for us that particular year. Then, when practice started, we put nine other guys out there and we started playing, two or three other guys passed him. It’s hard to judge. I’ll give you another one that’s funny. D.J. Cooper came to see me in the middle of summer and said, “Boy, Coach, I’m having a rough time with the workouts, the weight lifting, I’ve never done this before. Do you think I can play here?” You really don’t know until you start practice and you see them in a team setting on a consistent basis. The summer months, the way the NCAA has changed the rule has helped, that we can work with our team a portion of those two hours in the summer. That will certainly give us more of an idea. Even saying that, you’re talking eight total one-hour practices in eight weeks. We’re really not gonna know until practice starts. Right now, it’s open. We’ve recruited all these guys to impact our program, I think they can. They’re gonna have to earn that, but we’re excited about having all of them. We’ve got a lot of roster spots that are open based on Year 1 to Year 2 and guys are gonna have to go out and earn it. As I said earlier, players play players.

Can you talk about what you’d like to see from Nnanna Egwu?
I’m excited about him. He improved a great deal throughout the year. I think he can take another jump, especially with his body. I think strength and conditioning are really important for Nnanna, I think he would tell you that. One thing about him, you tell him to do something. ... You ask him to do 10 pushups, he does 11. He’s something else. His work ethic is off the charts, his motor runs all day long, so I’m excited about the improvement he can make under the guidance of Dustin, who does a terrific job as the position coach. Mike (Basgier) will do a good job with him in the weight room. I expect him to make strides both on the court and with his strength and conditioning.

Completing that, can you talk about Tracy and Myke (Henry)?
Tracy, same thing, strength. I think that’s a big thing for him. I think he’ll do a great job there. We’ll continue to work shooting with Tracy. I thought he really started to develop some of the things we needed him to do from the point position. He still has some ground to make up there and he knows that. He’s a willing listener, he loves to study film, he continued to get better as the year went on and I anticipate him getting better. Henry, again, strength. I think that’s a big deal for Myke, especially at the position he plays for us as an undersized, rugged 4. We need him to be more rugged. Continuing to develop his shot and maybe a little bit more of a game around the basket I think could be helpful to him and our team as well. All those guys got better, now we need them to take another jump.

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IlliniMike05 wrote on April 08, 2013 at 10:04 am

Maybe I just talk hoops with people who know what the hell they're talking about for the most part and am thusly out of touch with what less-informed casual fans think, but I'm not really comfortable with the assertion that Illinois fans were less than enthused by Groce at first. Is that the case? I know I was excited about him. Sure, we all wanted Shaka. Can't lie about that. He's the hot name and a terrific young coach that was seemingly a good fit. But the Michigan game showed why Klee expressed concerns about the havoc defense against good major-conference teams, and as soon as we started to hear rumors that Shaka wasn't crazy about recruiting in Chicago we knew it was time to move on. Past that and the baseless rumors of an offer to Brad Stevens, Groce was clearly the best candidate.

People I talk about basketball with were excited about him for the same reasons I was: his enthusiasm, he coaches a style that's highly attractive to elite players (see the tweets from DJ Cooper and Evan Turner to DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul about how much they'd love playing for Groce before Groce was even hired here, for example), he makes great use of advanced metrics and was one of the first advocates of in the coaching community, and he was known as a great recruiter, being named Rivals' 2006 Recruiter of the Year after being the lead assistant on the Conley/Cook/Oden class.

I know less-informed people (hi, Chicago media!), ignoring the situation he took over and the year-by-year improvement of his program, ham-handedly pointed to his 34-30 conference record as a sign of mediocrity. Do we really need to let the stupid guide the narrative? I don't think hindsight is necessary to realize what a good hire Groce was. A lot of us knew it at the time.


aaeismacgychel wrote on April 08, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I'd say most Illinois fans viewed Groce as a question mark- they simply didn't know all that much about him. I think most of the fanbase was pretty much expecting Shaka Smart to step in the door, so I would agree that there wasn't a huge buzz with Groce walking through the door and some disappointment.

I think the biggest reason for the "lack of enthusiasm" though was in the fumbled hiring process itself. Granted, the Chicago media was all over Thomas after he couldn't get Smart or Stevens through the door, but even more damning was the ridiculousness that ensued when the 2 Board of Trustees members said they wouldn't approve any non-African American hire and nobody putting them in their place or Thomas saying publicly, "I'm going to hire the best basketball coach regardless of race or color, even if they're blue, green, or purple in color.". Then of course came, whether it was real or not, the list passed around featuring only African-American targets, well, I'd argue that was what really infuriated most alums. It was an embarrassment of a coaching search.

So in that regard, I think many Illini fans wouldn't have been excited or enthused about any hire that wasn't a huge name. At this exact time of the hire, I don't recall many fans being enthused at all for this reason. As the weeks passed before the season started, most were a bit more excited and interested in giving him a chance. But I think MJ is indeed right in what he said, but really, anyone walking through the door with the mess the AD and BoT made of it would've had a hard time getting Illini fans to not call what happened a complete travesty. That said, I am in agreement that MJ probably shouldn't have even brought that up in the interview.

illinifan1280 wrote on April 09, 2013 at 1:04 am

I think the "perception" of the hiring process was all about the speculation. The only real facts we know about it were: 1) Shaka Smart was offered the world to come here, and he took some time to think it over before staying at VCU, and 2) Brad Stevens was contacted in some fashion, though it wasn't clear if it was to offer the job or not.

That's it. That is all that we ever knew for a fact. The rest was rumor, hearsay, speculation, etc. If you believed all the crazy rumors, Mike Thomas was in six different places at once, offering the job to every (black) coach with a cell phone, and getting doors slammed in his face. The reality is that this wasn't true.

Remember that Thomas had to conduct two searches at once, and completed the Bollant hire before Groce, while all the rumors swirled faster and faster. The only embarassments were the two Board of Trustees' comments, and the DIA's treatment of certain writers regarding a leaked announcement.

Personally, I hadn't though of Groce for the opening until he was hired. I was immediately onboard, because of how Ohio reacted. When Bruce Weber was offered the Oklahoma job a couple years ago? Illinois fans didn't care. They were fine with him leaving. When Groce got offered the Illinois job? Ohio took up a massive fundraiser to try and match Illinois' offer, because they were desperate to keep him. That spoke volumes to me.

IlliniMike05 wrote on April 09, 2013 at 10:04 am

+1. I agree with all of this.

I know Thomas has taken a lot of heat for what looks like a failed football hire and for speaking honestly about Weber's status when most ADs would have given some version of the "Bruce is our coach" non-approval approval. But for someone who was making two basketball hires at the same time I thought he handled it perfectly. Lazy-ass Chicago writers were judging Thomas on a timeframe that was nonexistent to him and ignoring that he was conducting a second search. Just because they (or honestly, most Illini men's basketball fans if we're gonna be honest) don't care about women's hoops doesn't mean the athletic director doesn't.

He made his play for Shaka, there was some vague contact with Stevens that I've heard- and it makes the most sense because Groce had started to emerge as the leader before the surprising Stevens rumors that Friday- was actually part of the process of vetting Groce, since they worked together. Which, again, is more speculation and not something we know. Nor did it matter, because Thomas wasn't concerned about how it was perceived, only about getting it right.

Time will always tell, but after a year it looks like he knocked both basketball hires out of the park.


IlliniMike05 wrote on April 09, 2013 at 10:04 am

If Illinois fans didn't know much about him, that's their own fault for not paying attention. And the BoT members never explicitly said they wouldn't approve any non-black coach.

blmillini wrote on April 09, 2013 at 10:04 am

It is the minority in any fanbase that truly understands the game.  I believe the bigger/better the program, the more of those minority you actually have.  Like the majority of the "fans" who think a player's ability is solely his ability to score, this same majority knows so little that they would only be happy with the "flavor of the month" names to fill a coaching vacancy.  The knowledgeable minority, like yourself, understand there is more to being a good player and being a good coach.

lmaran wrote on April 08, 2013 at 12:04 pm

The reference to the lack of enthusiasm on the part of some fans when Groce was hired is a point that MJ can just drop, it contributes nothing to the frame and depth of his coverage. It is such a non sequitur. There are some who are never satisfied, and never quiet, and I am sure their existence was not a factor in any sense in the AD's decision to hire Groce. I am unhappy that this keeps being brought up. In what way does this contributes relevance or signifcance to judging the coach's performance now? I do not see it. 


IlliniMike05 wrote on April 08, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Agreed. I think MJ is a terrific writer, but he's used this narrative several times that sounds like it's coming from one of the lazy, pack-mentality Chicago writers that completely butchered the story of Illinois' coaching search from start to finish last year while Klee was the only one getting any of it correct.

Like I said, myself and my friends that I talk about basketball with really liked the hire at the time as we quickly learned more about him, and I was pretty familiar with him already. I was a fan from the beginning. I know some people weren't happy with it, and they had dumb reasons, as dumb people are wont to do. But I don't believe that represents Illini fans as a whole. Or at least I really hope not.

illiniphil85 wrote on April 09, 2013 at 10:04 am

Saw that interjected in his last chat. Not sure where that's coming from. Most I know were very happy, on board or not familiar enough to know. As I told several on the fence, just wait till you hear this guy speak. If his leadership translates to victories on the court, you'll want him here a very long time.