So far, John Groce everything Illinois basketball hoped for
John Groce wasn’t Illinois’ first or second choice to fill Bruce Weber’s job.
Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens both turned down offers to become head coach of the Illini men’s basketball team last April, in part because of the fan base’s lofty recruiting expectations in Chicago.
The Illini lost their last 12-of-14 games after starting the season 10-0. Not only were they forsaken from the NCAA tournament, but they were denied a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. They then lost 7-foot center Meyers Leonard to the NBA Draft. And Weber, who had once been regarded as a legend in Champaign for taking the 2005 Illini to the national championship, was considered a dead man walking for the last few weeks of the season.
What a difference nine months, and just 11 games, can make.
With an undefeated season still intact, a Maui Invitational title under his belt and a top-10 national ranking for the first time since 2006, Groce has restored relevancy to a program that’s had its heart trampled over and over again since that national championship appearance seven years ago.
He’s also made true on the promise to recruit the big fish, signing a top-25 recruiting class with elite Chicago talent, even with a late start. While he’s seemingly missed out on Chicago’s darling recruit from next year, Jabari Parker, Class of 2014’s No. 2-prospect Jahlil Okafor from Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School said he’s still strongly considering Groce and the Illini. Simeon commits Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate both said they signed on with Groce because he was honest in his recruiting pitch and seemed like he could offer mentorship to the two prospects.
From the moment Groce stepped on campus, he’s done things his way. A new NCAA rule allowed him to work with his new players over the summer, giving the first-year coach a head start on conditioning his team to play within his system, a fast-paced, ball-screen offense mixed with a ball-hawking defense that likes to create turnovers and run. His system offered freedom, and the Illini already had an experienced group of returning personnel to handle the transition.
Perhaps no player has benefited more from the new system than Brandon Paul, who has emerged as a player of the year candidate and potential NBA Draft pick behind a team-leading 19 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game. He’s already earned the MVP at the Maui Invitational, won Big Ten Player of the Week and national player of the week for his 35-point domination of then-No. 10 Gonzaga. After struggling with consistency through his first three seasons at Illinois, Paul has matured into one of the finest complete players in a loaded Big Ten.
The road will surely get bumpier once the Illini reach conference play. Illinois has already had its fair share of struggles handling lesser-conference teams, needing last-second shots to defeat Gardner-Webb and Hawaii and almost coming unraveled against Norfolk State and Western Carolina. But the Illini also turned out terrific performances against big names like Gonzaga, USC and Butler, appearing like the team its current ranking dictates. The stark contrast is an occupational hazard to the team’s skillset — Illinois will live and die by the 3-point shot. So far, the Illini are shooting 40 percent from three this season and have only shot under 37 percent from downtown in four games — Norfolk State, Western Carolina, Hawaii and Gardner Webb. Illinois has six legitimate threats from downtown in Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey, Myke Henry, Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams. All have caught fire at times this season and disappeared during others.
Despite the early struggles, the Illini have had the veteran experience to pull out games down the stretch.
Groce has probably grown accustomed to the phrase “a win is a win” more than he’d like, but he’s always acknowledged the Illini are a jump-shooting team, and as such they will go through their ebbs and flows. Searching for consistency and starting games with energy will be the focus going forward, as Illinois looks to continue what it couldn’t last season.
But if there’s any specific way Groce has differentiated himself from Weber, it’s his energy. Don’t expect that to let up. Groce isn’t afraid to show emotion on the sidelines, and he often appears more winded than the players in postgame news conferences. He’s punched the scorer’s table on several occasions and even ripped a hole in his suit crouching into a defensive stance to motivate his players.
So far, he’s everything the Illini were looking for in a coach, even if they didn’t see it right away.
Ethan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @AsOfTheSky,