John Groce is always prepared. From his meticulous scouting reports to practice plans and having his team ready to play a game whether the tip time is 10 a.m. or 9:15 p.m., Groce is always poised. But a little more than two weeks after his team’s season came to an end with a one-point loss to Clemson in the NIT, Illinois’ basketball coach has had zero preparation for his next endeavor.
“I’ve never touched a hockey stick in my life,” said Groce, who just wrapped up his second season at the helm of the Illini program. “This whole deal should be interesting.”
Groce is traveling up Interstate-57 in his red Buick SUV with wife Allison and sons Conner, 8, and Camden, 4, to participate as the celebrity guest in the Shoot-the-Puck promotion at the Chicago Blackhawks’ home finale on Wednesday.
But instead of researching the ins and outs of the wrist shot during the trip, he’s trying to entertain his boys in the back seat.
“Conner says this is the cool guys club back here,” Groce said.
Between now and the start of the 2014-15 season, though, Groce is going to remain a tireless worker. He’s already spent as much time allowable on the recruiting trail looking to stockpile talent for future Illinois teams while he and his staff have already gotten to work on the returning players, beginning offseason workouts a week earlier than normal.
“We were all pretty eager to get back at it,” he said.
Before going full steam ahead toward 2014-15, Groce reflected on the season past while continuing to prep for what he hopes are brighter days ahead.
Last year’s season-ending loss to Miami in the NCAA tournament stuck with you for a while. Is that Clemson loss doing the same thing?
I tell our guys all the time it’s OK to be disappointed, we just don’t ever want to be discouraged or affect us in terms of continuing to move forward. I was disappointed we lost the Clemson game when we got ourselves back into position. We wanted to get to New York City. I felt it would be great for our team, our guys felt like we could play with and beat anybody. We relished that challenge of being the first team in the NIT to try to win the thing by winning all road and neutral games. I thought our guys embraced that. We just fell a little short. We had a couple of plays late in the game that we needed to make that we didn’t make.
The feeling after the game was disappointed, but like last year and maybe even more so this year, it motivated me even more to get better, be a better coach, help our players become better players and working with them in the offseason. That was probably as big a reason as any we came back after one week instead of two weeks. Normally I give them two weeks, but I felt that itch to get back out there and start working with the guys and I think a lot of the guys felt that way also. They wanted to get back to work. We had unfinished business.
We played well late in the year, but you always have your sights set on being in the NCAA tournament and we ended up being a tad short. We had the opportunity and the blessing to be in the NIT and we certainly wanted to make the most of that and we were fortunate to put ourselves in that position because five to six weeks before that I don’t know if we were equipped to be in either one.
Maybe some more mixed emotions this year than last, but at the same time, everyone in the program feels very motivated right now, very excited about how we finished, excited about who we’ve got coming back, who we’re adding with the transfers and the recruiting class. I think it’s going to be a team that has more depth, more talent A-Z in terms of the depth piece. Where does that get you? Nowhere unless you develop it. We’ve got to work, have a great offseason. We’ve got to re-establish with a new team our identity of being tough and together and continuing to emphasize the defensive end of the floor and rebounding it competitively like we did this year. But becoming a better offensive team, that’s at the forefront of our minds coaching and the X’s and O’s. We talk about sacrificing for one another and how competition is going to make each individual on the team better, it’s going to make our team as a whole better. All those things are the thoughts a lot of us have had in the last few weeks after the season ended.
You talk a lot about learning and being life-long learners. What did you learn this season as a coach?
We kind of went through that same rough spot early on in Big Ten play in Year 1 and we did from a record standpoint, but that spot or blip in the screen in Year 1 was split up with a win or two in there. This one, you really had to be tough and continue to see the light at the end of the tunnel and fight day after day. No one likes getting on that streak we did there after the first two Big Ten games, that was difficult. The thing I learned was to stay with it, control what you can control, keep getting better, be positive. The compliment we got the most and took pride in was when television people would come in the door and watch our shootaround and say “You can’t tell you’ve lost a few in a row” or “You guys look like you’ve won 10 in a row.” Our assistant coaches deserve a lot of credit for that. They really helped me personally, my wife did as well, fighting through that. I had never been through anything like that before as a player or a coach. Sometimes when you hit rock bottom and you have to find a way to keep getting off the mat, and you find a way to play as well as we did at the end of the year, I think at the end of the day it makes you better, makes you appreciate things more, makes you tougher, makes you understand you can fight through things. And I think those are characteristics we all want to have long term in our program from the standpoint of being tough and not getting too high or too low.
That streak certainly challenged all of us, but did we end up playing the best that we did all year at the end? We did. I wish we’d have done it about one game or two games earlier and you never know, you might take a different path than we did at the end of the year. We still feel blessed we were able to get going that direction late in the year and at least an opportunity to play in the postseason.
What was the high point of the season for you?
Taking pride in holding opponents under 50 points four consecutive games. That hadn’t been done since 1947, that’s tough to do in the modern shot-clock era, in our league, against the competition. It was four in a row in conference games. That’s hard to do. That right there speaks volumes when people ask “Where were your guys’ minds at when they were going through that?” To be able to do that, four in a row, you can’t hold people to those kinds of numbers without giving meticulous effort on that end of the floor. We’re proud of that.
I thought the way we played on the road late in the year, winning four out of five Big ten road games, that was a great stretch for us.
Having a chance to win in St. Louis and honoring our previous senior class, I think that was pretty neat.
There were a lot of good moments, but the learning and what we did and how it applies to next year, getting your guys to understand the little things matter and that you’re just a point here or a point there from getting what you want. It’s a game here or a game there from having an opportunity to dance. What that does long term is make our guys appreciate it even more, value every second we have together, value everything we’re doing, that everything matters. That’s what I hope we learned more than anything else.
You just finished up your second year here and you’ve already got your former guys coming back on a regular basis. What does that mean for you and say about what you’re building in terms of camaraderie?
It’s a great deal. I tell those guys all the time when I coach them whether they like it or not they’re stuck with me for the rest of their lives. It’s not just while they’re here. When you build a basketball program, which is what we were intent on doing when we got the job in March of 2012, I would hope those guys take pride in the fact that they’re starting that process. They’re important to me, they laid down the foundation: (Brandon) Paul, D.J. (Richardson), (Sam) McLaurin, (Tyler Griffey) Griff, (Kevin) Berardini and even the way Joe (Bertrand) and Jon (Ekey) handled themselves this year. Those guys will always be a huge part of the process and the foundation as we continue to build on it, I want them to take pride in this and I want them to come back. We love those guys unconditionally as people. I think it speaks to the family atmosphere that we have and the relationships we have inside our program.
As you look back at the season and review things, what one or two decisions are hanging out there that you’d like to have back?
I take a lot of responsibility. No one likes to go through the streak we went through there after two games in the Big Ten season. That’s on me. I’ve got to help our guys figure it out. At that point, we were wracking our brains, talking about lineups, talking about different things we could do offensively to help our team score. How do we get better? We’re trying to find the right button to push. I think we eventually got there, but you always second guess yourself. I think I said that after the (Michigan) game in Indianapolis. It’s easy to second guess because hindsight is 20/20. I recited what (Bill) Belichick said in the NFL playoffs — and I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and the organization he’s built in New England. Every coach, when the game’s over you start to think about plays in the game. “What if” or “Maybe I should have done this.” I don’t care what level you’re at. For me, I would say for myself, is there anything else I could have done to help those guys and get us to play a little bit better earlier. Maybe there isn’t. As a coach, you always feel like you can do better. Jon was only with us for one year and had just the one opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament — I owe a lot to Joe as well — but Jon only had one shot, so I’ve asked if there was something we could have done one or two games earlier that we could have given Jon an opportunity to be in the tournament. That stuff lives with you as a coach. You can’t digest it, that’s why what we’re doing now in the offseason is as important as any time in the year because I think great organizations and great teams take time to self-evaluate. It gives you a chance to hit the reset button a little bit and you learn and it allows you to make decisions that allow your program to grow. I think this is a really, really important time in the year that we take seriously is that spring evaluation period.
The last thing that happened is usually fresh in minds and you guys kind of dinged that play up at Clemson and Tracy Abrams took some criticism. How do you handle a situation like that with him or anyone who might deal with something similar?
Obviously Tracy is a big part of what we do. I love the kid, he’s a competitor. If you polled the coaches in our league and said “Tracy Abrams” they’d tell you they love his competitive toughness and that’s who he is. He’s the same guy that made the two free throws to beat Missouri. He’s the same guy that had one of the best all-around performances he’s had in the two years I’ve coached him to help us beat Indiana to get to the Michigan game in the Big Ten tournament. As I said, when he took the shot at the end against Michigan in Indianapolis, I’m going to live with that because I know where his heart and mind are. He’s a guy that wants to get better. Obviously, is that the shot we diagramed? No. He made the decision to take it and he took it. We missed it and it is what it is. We’re going to have to live and learn from it and he’s going to have to be better for it. We’re going to have to be better. I always tell him, those same people who deal out the criticism are probably the same people who are tweeting how great you are after you make two free throws to beat Missouri. You’ve got to have big-boy pants in the position you’re in at Illinois. We’ve got great fans, people follow it, they care about it and they’re going to get attached to it emotionally one way or the other. We’ve got to make sure we stay solid and grounded throughout the whole process. Tracy’s learned that deal of never getting too high or too low. He wants to learn, get better, keep improving. He wants to do something special. He’s got one more year, he’s a big part of what we do. More than anything I’ve tried to encourage him and get him to understand that in sports and in life, you can be applauded like you’re a rock star when in reality you’re probably not. At the same time, you can be peoples’ goat when in reality there were several other plays throughout that game that could have been made to affect the outcome just as much as that possessions. Trying to get him to stay even-keeled, he’s a tough kid, he’s older, so he knows that. At the same time, he cares, so you’ve got to make sure he doesn’t take that stuff totally to heart and I think he’s a tough enough kid where he can handle it.
Were you pulling for Wisconsin in the Final Four? Do you root for the Big Ten team in that spot?
Yeah, no question. I thought we had the best league all year. I know there was some debate with the Big 12, but 1-12 I would take what we have against anybody. I think how well the league did in the tournament helps. But I’m not one of those guys that’s like, “Hey, what does this mean for the Big Ten?” It’s a one-game deal. It’s about whoever plays better that night. Every team in the tournament is good or else they wouldn’t’ be there. When I was at Ohio we made 13 threes (against Georgetown). If we played them again the next night, would we hit 13 threes? Probably not, but we did that night. I think a lot of it’s how you play on that given night. The second thing people forget is matchups, those loom large. Maybe you have a bad matchup on a guy or a team and that might indicate who wins the game. I don’t look at it as Big Ten vs. SEC tonight. It’s Wisconsin vs. Kentucky. Sometimes people give that too much attention. I know sometimes perception can be strong in that regard. It’s about who plays well that night. It’s about who’s hot that night. It’s about the matchup that night.
What was the best off-the-court moment for you and the team this season?
We had a ton of them. The meals at my house the night before games. How happy I saw our guys when we won in St. Louis, I thought that was pretty neat. Having guys back like Eddie Johnson, Mannie Jackson, Brandon Paul, Sam and D.J., the Flyin’ Illini and others. Having those guys speak to the team and sharing their experiences of playing at Illinois and what going to school at Illinois means to them. Those things are neat.
Personally, the Indiana game I came out and one of our soldiers gave me a flag and a plaque. I have so much respect for our veterans and for me that was pretty neat. That means a lot to me that he would think that highly of a simple letter that I sent him to do something like that was very humbling.
Bus rides, having fun with our guys and watching 30 for 30s on the bus. You get to where it’s those times that people don’t necessarily get to see because all they see is the games and that’s where you get to know guys and grow closer as a team, develop relationships that are going to last a life time. Those are the fun times.