John Groce Recaps Whirlwind Beginning

The Fighting Illini announced a new head basketball coach last week. That was the easy part for John Groce. Since then, he has seen a whirlwind of activity, from traveling to media centers around the state to hiring staff; from working out his new team to last-minute recruiting efforts including hosting prospects. Fortunately, his high-energy personality seems ideal for the task.

Speaking on WDWS radio Saturday morning, new Illinois basketball coach John Groce says he has been pleased with his reception around the state.

"Our reception has been great. I think people are really excited. I think they feel our staff's excitement in the program. They've really gotten behind us."

Groce has already lead current Illini players through three spring workouts. He spoke about the experience in positive terms.

"It's going very well. I've been very pleased with how coachable they've been and how teachable they've been. They've warmed up very well to our staff. We're very excited to work with them.

"They've shown a lot of improvement just from workout 1 to workout 3. I'm excited to work with them this upcoming week. We've got three more weeks before the week before finals. At that point, our workouts will end for the spring."

Can he adapt his offensive and defensive style to the abilities of present players?

"I think there's a balance. Obviously, we do have a system and style of play that I think is exciting. The players we've coached in the past have enjoyed playing it.

"It's very up-tempo on offense, it's very attack-oriented. Defensively, we play a lot of man-to-man. We will sprinkle in zone, and we'll press occasionally. We try to be disruptive and do some things to force turnovers so we can get out in transition.

"Having said that, I also think adaptability is very important. Obviously, when you take over a new situation, you're gonna do the best job you can of analyzing who you have. Ultimately, it's our staff's responsibility and my responsibility to try to put those players that we currently have in the best position to be successful.

"We've always made our calling on how deep we've been and how aggressive and fast and aggressive on the defensive end, up-tempo on the offensive end. We'd like to do that, but I also don't want to be so stubborn that we try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Especially here in year one.

"The coaches I've been around in the past have always been coaches that are adaptable to a certain extent. But they have a system of play they believe in."

Groce helped counsel Meyers Leonard about his decision to enter the NBA draft. So he knows full well the Illini will lack size next season.

"No question about it. It kind of is what it is at this point. We really have three front court players. We've got to find a way to be creative and get the most out of them. At the same time, we're also looking to see if someone might be available out there to help us with size.

"The one thing I'm not gonna do is take somebody to take somebody. I'm one of those coaches that uses scholarships as gold. We're gonna continue to prod, look and see if anyone's available who might be a fit for us and what we're trying to do. If not, then we'll hold it and use it for the 2013 class."

Options are definitely limited at this point, but Groce will look into unsigned seniors as well as junior college players.

"A lot of it depends on our ability to analyze the situation and see exactly what that particular young man, whether he's a junior college kid or an unsigned senior, is all about and whether he fits with what we're trying to do here philosophically.

"We're looking for either one, but at this stage in the game, early April, obviously there's not a lot of 7-footers around out there that are seniors. We want to do our due diligence, for sure. I'm also prepared at this point to move that scholarship to the 2013 class if need be."

While they have not yet been announced officially, Groce's Ohio assistants Jamall Walker and Dustin Ford are both already helping the Illini. Groce is glowing in his praise of both men.

"I think the strength of both guys is that they're both smorgasbord guys, meaning that they can do everything. That's a big reason why they're here.

"Jamall is from St. Louis, played at St. Louis, has recruited Chicago. He recruited D.J. Cooper, who was our best player at Ohio in the four years I was there. He had some strong relationships pre-existing in Chicago.

"He's recruited the state of Illinois, has recruited the state of Indiana. Obviously, he's very strong in St. Louis. He has relationships in Kansas City. So from a geographic standpoint, you couldn't put Jamall Walker in a better spot. He's right in the middle of all of that. Recruiting is obviously something he does very well.

"He coached our defense the last couple years. He and I have worked closely hand-in-hand on that side of the ball. Our defensive numbers this past season speak for themselves. We've got a philosophy in terms of how we defend, how aggressive we are. Jamall is a part of that.

"He's very good at individual skill development, in particular with perimeters because he played that position in college and has a real passion for teaching the skill set that's appropriate for that position. He's terrific and has been a big part of my career.

"Dustin is a very intelligent, extremely bright coach. He's terrific with X's and O's. He's great on the bench, great with game management. He played the game himself, his father was a legendary high school coach in Ohio.

"He's also done a great job for us recruiting, and he has an incredible knack for working with post players. He did a great job with the guys we had at Ohio. He has a real passion for it and has done a terrific job with those guys.

"I saw them getting better every single year they were with us, from footwork to how to seal to how to use their bodies. To being able to be versatile enough to turn and face and still play in the post, play in the high post. He does a great job teaching that skill set.

"He's also good with scouting. He did every third scout for me, as has Jamall during the time that I've been at Ohio. Those two guys are about as good as it gets. I've been very spoiled, and I'm fortunate to have them working with me at the University of Illinois."

Is he still considering Jerrance Howard, lead recruiter for former Illini coach Bruce Weber, for an assistant coaching position?

"I'm in the process of doing that. I cannot confirm for you that that is not a possibility. There's some things I'm still working out in my transition from Ohio to Illinois, and some other factors that are involved in the decision-making process. I'm trying to make that decision as soon as possible so we can have everybody in place here. I'm hoping we can do that sometime this coming week, to bring closure to those things."

There are rumors Brandon Miller is being considered for an assistant position. Is there truth to that?

"Brandon's a guy I've known for years. He played for us when I was at Butler and coached with us in some capacity at Xavier and Ohio State. He does a terrific job.

"There's no question he's a guy I would look at because of his experience and time in the Big Ten. He's had six years experience there. He's certainly not the only one at this point, to be honest with you. I'm very open with that spot, including Jerrance.

"So I'm trying to make the best decision, trying to put a staff together that complements one another. And it's not just the three assistant coaching spots everyone is focused on. I also have a couple administrative spots, a GA spot. I look at that as a whole, trying to fit the pieces together, almost like a puzzle, to make sure everything fits really well and we have everything covered."

Much of next year's schedule was completed before Groce took over. He's close to getting everything finalized.

"We're finished on the home slate. We have one game we need to get. We've got one that we're going to initiate with a contract on Monday to be able to finalize the schedule. At that point, we'll be done with the exception of one game that we're looking to get.

"Hopefully we can put closure to that in the next week or two. Once everything is finalized and all contracts are in, we'll release the schedule. I know people are excited to start planning their calendars."

Recruiting is a high priority for Groce. Previous 2013 commit Malcolm Hill visited campus yesterday and is deciding whether to remain committed to the new staff. But the NCAA poses limits on recruiting that hinder Groce's efforts. He hopes to make up for it later in April.

"There is a dead period starting on Monday. We are allowed to go out again on Friday. We'll start attacking that by leaving campus. And then there's a couple weekends where we can get out back-to-back, the weekends of the 21st and 28th. There are some AAU tournaments that are certified that our staff will be traveling to watch."

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