Groce looks to point men’s basketball in new direction

John Groce isn’t going to sugarcoat it. He plays favorites.

Before he replaced Bruce Weber as Illinois’ men’s basketball coach in March, led Ohio to the Sweet 16 or worked with Thad Matta at Xavier and Ohio State, Groce was a high school math teacher.

“I’d tell parents, ‘I’m just going to tell you right now — I have classroom favorites,’” Groce said. “My favorite guys are the ones that do what they’re supposed to do.”

It’s a simple concept in theory, but it’s also one that has been lost on the Illini basketball program since 2005.

Weber never won with the talent he’d recruited into the program to win with.

Once regarded as the next great Illinois star, Jereme Richmond didn’t live up to expectations before leaving the program in 2010.

And while one highly touted recruiting class has followed the next, the Illini missed the NCAA tournament last season for the third time in the last five seasons, and they haven’t made it back to the Sweet 16 in seven years. In four seasons at Ohio, Groce took his MAC program further in the tournament than Illinois has gone since finishing as the national runner-up in 2005.

But with the young and vivacious Groce, Illini fans can expect drastic changes. He’s going to pursue “one-and-done” type talent in recruiting, employ a fast-paced transition offense built on spacing in the half court and refuse to concern himself with last season’s below-average results.

“I wasn’t here. That’s the past. It’s gone,” Groce said. “I’m going to start the guys at each respective position that grade out the highest defensively. I’ve shared that with the team. They know that. That’s who’s going to start the first exhibition game.”

Though he’s only had his team for a total of eight hours spread over one-hour sessions throughout the summer, he’s already thrown out the pieces that led the Illini to finish 17-15 last season (6-12 Big Ten) while auditioning the Illini’s new model student.

He refuses to place lofty expectations on the improvements Nnanna Egwu will make this season — after Meyers Leonard leaped from a Big Ten footnote in his freshman year to the 11th overall pick in the NBA Draft in June — but the sophomore center has been Groce’s hardest worker this summer.

“The commitment he had in the weight room, the gains he had in there with his body, how hard he worked in skill, how much he ate that opportunity up to get better, he had an unbelievable summer,” Groce said. “Nnanna has not only done what he’s supposed to do, he’s gone above and beyond.”

At Ohio, Groce got a reputation for running a guard-heavy offense. That was more a function of his assets.

When Matta gave Groce the reigns to his offense at Xavier and Ohio State, dominating low-post presences like David West, Greg Oden and Terrance Dials became the centerpieces of his game plan. When Groce led his team to a near-upset of North Carolina in the Sweet 16 last season, he ran his offense through guards D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt because they were his best scorers.

Groce’s system is fast-paced and offers his players freedom, but it’s also designed to fit the talent of his personnel. In an ideal world, he likes nine guys to play double-digit minutes every night. That will be difficult this season because he only has one point guard on his roster, sophomore Tracy Abrams. Still, Groce likes the way Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand could fit into an offense that hinges on finding angles, and he also sees Egwu as a rising talent.

“There’s purpose behind it. It’s not chaos,” Groce said. “There’s a method behind the madness. There’s purpose, great purpose, and there is intelligence behind it. It’s not just run-and-gun, but at the same time I do want those guys to have freedom and we want them to attack.”

That’s the word. Attack. Groce wants it to resonate with his players and become his program’s calling card. Those who get it will become his “favorites,” but for now he has to teach them how to do what they’re supposed to do.