Illinois looks to snap a seven-game losing streak to the Boilermakers, who enter the contest 6-6 after up-and-down performances against non-conference opponents. Groce talked about the need to rebound the basketball well against Purdue, and also discussed the recent shooting woes, playing on the road and much more...
JG: "We took Sunday off. I wanted to try to get our minds and bodies ready for the conference season, kind of set the stage for that on Sunday. Practiced yesterday (Monday). Had a great practice. Guys were really locked in. I think they're excited about season number two starting (Wednesday) night and obviously we've got some things we've got to keep getting better at, rebounding is a concern going into the Purdue game as well as they rebound the ball. Whenever you play them you've got to be tough physically, you've got to be tough mentally. Matt's (Purdue coach Matt Painter) teams always play with great toughness so I know we're looking forward to that challenge."
What can you tell us about Purdue?
JG: "I think the first thing that concerns you is their ability to rebound the basketball. This is the third team in a row that we've played that statically nationally is among the best at rebounding the ball. That's something we've got to continue to get better at. We've got to find a better answer there and do it collectively as a group at a higher level.
"In terms of their personnel, obviously the kid Ronnie Johnson is really, really talented. I had a chance to see him play in high school as well as AAU. You can see that he's getting better with each game as you would expect from most freshman. His brother Terone Johnson is a guy that can drive and shoot the ball, that does both those things well and is capable of having big nights. I know he had several last year. He had great numbers against us last year. In fact I think he had nine assists and two turnovers in the two games and averaged double figures. We've got to do a good job of defending him and defending his jump shot as well as his drive game. That's important, and then I think D.J. Byrd is the X-factor. He's the guy that brings that Purdue toughness to the table. He's kind of the head of the snake if you will. I really respect and appreciate watching him play on film. He plays the game the right way. I mean, he plays with great toughness, he's diving on loose balls, he makes big shots, he's got a mental and physical toughness that I really respect and appreciate as a coach.
"And then really their collection of 4-5s up front, the best thing they do is rebound the ball. I think Hammons' development, he's continued to get better. He's now a double figure scorer and he's huge. He's seven-foot tall. They list him at 280. 290. He's big and does a great job in the post area of scoring the ball. If you give him deep position he buries you with his size, he has great touch. I've watched all the games, and I think he's getting better, as well as Johnson, which you would expect from freshmen."
What happened defensively against Auburn (the Tigers scored 79 points)? Was something structurally wrong or was it a minor problem?
JG: "I didn't think we were very good defensively. I thought Auburn did a good a job. Obviously they had some guys make some shots. They had one guy make his first 3 of the year. They had another guy that had made three going into the game out of like 20. He made one as well. They had some guys make some shots that were a little abnormal, but we gave too many to Frankie Sullivan, we gave too many to Johnson. We didn't take those away nearly well enough. I think that was the most disappointing thing and transitioning got us a little early. I thought we got settled down there after the first four or five minutes in that particular area and then I just think defending the 3 was something that we didn't do very well that we had done pretty well to this point. We've got to do a much better job of that and play a little bit harder than what we did at the start of the game defensively. I didn't think we had much bite until eight minutes to go until halftime. I thought in the second half we were better."
Do you worry about playing in front of their home crowd, on the road in this first Big Ten game?
JG: "With the road environments we've played in until this point, whether it's at Hawaii or at Gonzaga, I think in terms of like volume and noise, or in the Missouri game in St. Louis, our guys are used to that. That's just part of the gig, so it will get loud in there I'm sure. I'm sure they'll have a great crowd and you know Gonzaga had a great crowd and it was deafening in there. You know, there were times when we were in St. Louis it was pretty deafening in that. I think our guys are pretty accustomed to that."
Do you consider the Big Ten schedule sort of a season in itself?
JG: "No question. Now it's we kind of learned a lot about our team, we finished up season one and now we're headed into season two."
Is the team where you hoped they would be at this point in the season?
JG: "Yeah I think we're further along in some areas and in other areas we've got to get better with some of our fundamental stuff that we do, both defensively and offensively. I don't know if they're quite habits yet. We're closer now than when we started obviously, but it is still the first year for the system and for terminology and certain things. I think the guys have worked very hard to learn it and are getting better at it every day, but I don't think we've mastered it at this point. That also gets me excited because I think if we do master it we've got another level of play where we can play even better."
What will it take to get the guys to improve or click with the rebounding issues?
JG: "Well obviously we work on it every day in practice. It's got to be a mindset that it's got to be important to our guys. We've got to do it a little bit differently than some other teams. Some night where you maybe don't have quite the girth of some teams, but we've got to go get it as a group of five. We've got to go get the ball. We need our guards to rebound for us. I think there's times where they've done that pretty well. Brandon and Tracy in particular, and D.J. and Joe have had great rebounding games. We're going to need them to continue to do that. I think that's important. We don't have necessarily a dominant defensive rebounder. We're going to have to do that by committee."
What has hurt the 3-point shooting as of late? Is it more of added attention from the opponents or something on your team's end that's causing the struggles (17-80, 21.2 percent)?
JG: "Probably a little bit of both. Probably a little bit of both. They were on a pace there early, I can't remember what we were shooting, but it's tough to do that, for any team to do that, that torrid pace, for 30-35 games, so we knew that. But I do think we're a real good shooting ball club, and we're certainly capable of having big nights from 3, so I think a little bit of it has probably been, you know, game-planning by opponents and a little bit of it probably has been we missed some. We've had some we typically can make at a high percentage. Probably a little bit of both. I do think the benefit of that is obviously we've driven the ball. We've driven the ball. We've had Brandon and Tracy get a high number of free throw attempts in several games here lately, so that helps our offense."