Illini Point Guard Needs Special Abilities

Fighting Illini basketball coach John Groce was a point guard when he played. The same is true for his assistants. So when it comes to recruiting players to fit the system, a point guard with tremendous all-around skills is essential. Groce talks about what he wants in a point guard in part five of his nine-part interview.

Illinois basketball coach John Groce has been asked the question frequently. What does he want from his point guard? The requirements for the position are complex and specific; finding the right one is essential to the Illini's overall success.

"That person is our quarterback," Groce reminds. "The biggest thing that person has to do, he has to be able to connect our team and not divide our team. He has to have the ability to make decisions in different speeds and gears because we want to be that team that's adaptable. I think that's the tough one. That's what separates guys the best.

"He has to be a strong, confident decision-maker. He has to have that blow-by ability to get in the lane. And he needs to be able to score at a certain level. If he doesn't, then guys don't guard him. He has to be a dangerous scorer. Some might consider him a combo guard because he must do everything."

Many wonder whether the Illini can be effective playing an up-tempo style in the Big 10, where quality teams and coaches abound. Rivals try to force opponents into a half-court game. Groce wants a point guard who can lead the team regardless of circumstances.

"We prefer an up-tempo, attacking, aggressive style of play. But there are times it becomes a half-court game, especially in post season. The team that executes the best half-court defense and offense often advances.

"So the point guard has to be effective in both the transition, up-and-down style game, as well as be adaptable to read the road conditions if you will and make decisions in a half-court fashion."

Defense and leadership are extremely important as well.

"They're the front porch of our defense, so they have to be able to guard the basketball out front. I think that's critical. And they have to be someone that as a head coach you can trust, someone you can develop a relationship with. They are an extension of you, just like a quarterback would be in football."

Groce and his staff are busy trying to recruit a guard who can be all those things. Such players are few and far between, and the great ones are coveted by most all major college programs. What if the best fits all go elsewhere? How much is Groce willing to compromise during recruiting?

"Obviously, no one wants to compromise. We do need a point guard. We have one right now in Tracy (Abrams), and there are some other guys we might shift that way to adapt to what we have this first year.

"But we don't want to compromise on too many of those values and characteristics because we don't want to compromise our style of play. That is most important. We'll keep cracking the whip and try to get one that fits those characteristics as best we can.

"They may not have all of them entirely, but you've got to know which ones you're getting. And you have to feel like, can they be taught some of the ones they don't have right now? Do they have that kind of potential, that type of ceiling? I think that all takes place in the evaluation process."

Like all successful coaches, Groce understands he must adapt his preferred style to fit his personnel. But the goal is to bring in players who can play the way he wants so major compromise will be unnecessary. He wants to recruit players who fit the mold rather than change his style of play.

"We have an idea of who we want to recruit and what those guys look like. Right now, just like when I was at Ohio and inherited a team, we have to make sure we're not putting square pegs in round holes. We have to be adaptable to a certain extent here, especially the first couple of years. And that's okay. It is what it is, and we have to figure that out."

In the long run, Groce prefers to recruit players who fit his ideal definition for every position. That way, it will be easy for each player to fulfill the role needed. Until then, patience is necessary.

"With this first year team, when will I be able to specifically define roles? That may take a little bit longer. This past year at Ohio, I coached those kids for a year or two years. Their roles were defined well before practice started. But I knew a lot of those kids.

"Obviously, we're not at that stage here. So I'm not going to define roles until I get a better feel for what guys can and can't do, and we can practice on a more consistent basis than we do right now."

In the recent past, the Illini have struggled finding team leaders. Groce talks about recruiting and developing leaders in part six of a nine-part interview.

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