Illinois basketball coach John Groce was able to introduce his three assistant coaches to the media Thursday. Jamall Walker, Dustin Ford and Isaac Chew were announced in that order. Groce is excited about the quality of the group.
"I feel like I've got one of the best staffs in the country. That was our goal when we hired them and put everybody together.
"The thing that's best about the three assistant coaches, those guys are committed to the development of our players at a high level. I was able to hire three guys who can coach, who can scout and who can develop players, rather than hire somebody who is more pigeonholed in certain areas.
"I think that's where the game is headed. The development piece is certainly the most important piece. We like to talk about recruiting; obviously it's important to us for sure. But you've got to develop them once they get here. I'm confident that these three guys are committed in that area."
Walker, Ford and Chew are all head coach material. Groce is aware he may lose one or more of them as they advance up the coaching ranks. But it is a necessary evil.
"That's what happens when you have good ones, but it's a good problem to have. I lost a good guy who became the head coach at Gardner-Webb. He had an opportunity to be a head coach. Our guys were highly sought-after at Ohio, and it will probably be the same here.
"But our guys are committed to being here, or I wouldn't have hired them. They understand the challenges we have ahead of us. I think they're excited about that challenge and are ready to roll up their sleeves and start grinding."
Groce and his assistants spent their allotted spring workouts on skill development with current Illini players. All four are committed to making each player better.
"I think each kid is different. So we have to use a different philosophy on how we do things. We do a lot of one-on-one workouts.
"Coach Chew will have the wings, Coach Walker will have the guards, and Coach Ford will have the forwards and posts. Those guys are on the cutting edge of developing those guys and those positions. That's something I take into consideration when I hire.
"I think getting to know the individuals is important. You've got to know their games, you've got to know them as people, you've got to know them as students. The better you can connect with the kid, the easier it is to develop the young man.
"My dad always said to me, 'They don't really care what you know until they know how much you care.' So that's part of that relationship piece that allows our coaches to help our players to the fullest extent.
"Our motto is to say, 'Get 1% better every day.' Whether that's on the personal side, the student side or the basketball player side. If you do that, it gives you a chance.
"Every kid goes to college, in my mind, to experience growth. If they stay the same person, student and player during the time that they're here, then obviously we've failed and they've failed.
"It is a two-way street. We need them to be responsible and accountable and take advantage of all the resources and people that we have that are here to help them. We're going to recruit with that in mind, to find guys that love the game. Our staff loves the game, and the staff is committed to their development."
Walker and Groce have had previous connections in Chicago, a prime recruiting area. But Chew was born and raised there. Groce is impressed with the former Mizzou assistant and hopes to benefit from Chew's familiarity with the area.
"It's very important. That's something we certainly took into consideration when hiring him. The thing I felt most comfortable with him was not only his recruiting prowess in that area, but in other areas as well.
"He can do about anything. You can throw anything on his plate. I've been very impressed with him over the first couple of weeks that he's been on the job. He tackles it, he's motivated and passionate. He understands our mission here to develop our guys, and he embraces it wholeheartedly."
Chew recently escorted Groce around Chicago, meeting top high school and AAU coaches in the area. Groce recognized the importance of developing relationships there, and he will do more in the near future.
"We worked hard at it, especially last week. It was really my first chance to be out other than at a sanctioned event like we had this past weekend. It was good. We went to some schools to meet some familiar faces and continue to grow some relationships we already have, and try to build some others that may not be quite as sound.
"We want to work with some of those, so we're working hard. We're still not done. Chicago's a big city, and we still have some other people we think it's important to connect with. We'll be working very diligently to do that."
All three assistants have a strong recruiting resume. Chew spent last weekend in Minneapolis, Ford Pittsburgh and Walker Indiana at AAU events. Groce split his time between Minnesota and Indiana. Illini coaches are behind evaluating prospects due to their recent hiring, so new NCAA rules permitting April travel have come in handy for Groce and his crew.
"That's great. How timely, the chance to get out. Otherwise, if they didn't give us these two weekends that we didn't have last year, when you head into July as a staff, I wouldn't say blind, but you're really in heavy evaluation mode.
"At least we've been able to evaluate a fair number of kids we feel like we needed to do that with. Now when we get to July, we'll have more of an ability to streamline it and chase some of the kids that we really want."
Groce can't give names, but he and his staff are still searching for possible late additions to his current team. A big man or point guard would help positions lacking depth, but Groce won't take just anyone.
"There's a chance that we could add other guys at this point. We've added one here recently, and we'll continue to explore all options.
"The big thing, as I've said from the outset, we've had some options already that we've passed on. For me, it's a program that's a long-term thing. We want to make sure that guys are good fits. I'm not interested in taking a guy just to patch the dam for one year in one particular area. We are building a program."
Groce appears pleased with the progress of his 10 current scholarship players during spring workouts.
"They've been coachable and teachable for the duration. I think we've gotten better over the four weeks. Most importantly, I think they feel that way.
"We've still got work to do. Skill development is an important part of the game for each player. But that's different than putting nine other guys out there with him playing five on five. I call that connecting the dots.
"I've seen players at times in my career look like $1 million in skill instruction, and then when you put nine other players out there, they struggle. I've seen guys, (D.J.) Cooper was one of them that I had at Ohio. I'll never forget early on how bad he looked at skill, and he was a heck of a player. So sometimes you can get the flip of that."
The main thing is, current Illini have embraced the new coaching and worked hard to improve. Groce wants his players to be tough mentally and physically.
"I think their attitudes have been good. Obviously, I'm a tough critic. I want us to be a little bit tougher right now than what we are collectively. We are working on that; I think it starts there. It's a mindset more than anything else. We've talked a lot about that in the time I've had the job.
"We did a lot of competitive things this week in our workouts. You learn a lot about guys when you put them in situations where they have to deal with success and deal with adversity, the highs and lows, because that's what basketball is like.
"It's a momentum game, it's very dynamic within a possession, within a game, within a season, and you've got to be able to handle all the ebbs and flows of it. That's where the toughness element comes into play. That's something that we'll continue to emphasize at a high level."
Groce is big on statistics. He feels it helps reinforce what he and his fellow coaches tell players about what they are doing well, and what they need to improve.
"We do a lot of things where we measure and evaluate things in tangible ways. So it allows us and them to be confident when they see their progress in a certain area or a certain drill or certain skill. Success breeds success, so the more successful they are in the workouts, then I think that inspires them even more to be in here and want to grow, to get better."
The NCAA recently added summer workouts to permitted activities. It is propitious for the new Illini staff.
"No question. I think it's perfect timing for the new summer access rule. We're excited about it. We'll get eight weeks with them, the same time allotment that we do in the spring and fall. It will be eight hours a week, six of which are strength and conditioning and two are skill development. I think it's really going to benefit these guys. I hope they're half as excited as we are to work with them.
"I think it's important this summer with a new staff that we're around them, that we're here so they can get to know us better, and we can get to know them better."
Individual skill development will help come fall. But Groce will have to wait for fall drills before he can begin work with all players simultaneously.
"I don't think we'll know the true deal until we start dealing with them in a five-on-five setting. We'll be able to do that at the earliest September 15."
It appears Groce knows who will fill out the remaining positions on his staff. They cannot be announced yet due to necessary red tape, but a Special Assistant to the Head Coach and Director of Basketball Operations should be announced shortly. Groce will also add a grad assistant in the near future.
"At this point, we've pretty much got everybody hired that we need to hire. We have a few more hoops to jump through before announcing our full cast of characters."
One final spot must be confirmed. The Illini need a Strength & Conditioning Coach, and Groce wants to make sure he hires someone who can help enhance the efforts of the rest of the staff.
"That's a critical position. A Strength & Conditioning Coach can certainly help us build toughness both mentally and physically. And he has different rules within the NCAA rules where he can be around them a little bit more. So he has to be an extension of your staff and extension of your philosophy."
Groce was asked if he has now become master of his kingdom. That notion doesn't fit his personal philosophy of leadership.
"I don't know if it's mine. It's the players'; it's always going to be about the players. They can get anybody to sit at the desk where I sit, and a lot of people would want to do that. So it's their program, it's always going to be their program. And I've got a staff that understands it's about them.
"We view this thing as we're all doing it together, and we're all dependent on one another. One guy is not any more important, whether it's someone on my staff or support staff or whoever it is on our team. Everybody's role is important.
"Your team is always as strong as your weakest link; I told them that a lot. Everybody has to carry their end of the bargain."