Groce Q&A: Pre-Michigan

Coach John Groce spoke with the media prior to Illinois' matchup with Michigan.

Opening statement...

JG: "I thought we played good, especially on the defensive end, on Tuesday night, something to build on for sure. I thought that our guys are starting to have some carryover from what we're asking them to do detail-wise, a correlation between the details of what we're asking them to execute our offense and defense and how that relates to performance, which is a good thing. We graded out as high as we've graded out as a team on the defensive end in terms of doing what we're supposed to do and then the results kind of took care of themselves on that end. You know, offensively I thought we moved the ball better. We had 12 assists on 24 field goals, so that ratio was better. I just felt like we've gotten better over the last week, and that's really all you can control. You know, we had a good practice yesterday. We've got two more in preparation for Sunday's game against Michigan. You know, obviously they're a load. They're terrific at both ends of the floor. They've got great personnel, they're very well coached, they don't have a lot of weakness and they're a really good basketball team, You know, our guys are excited to be back at home and the challenge of playing Michigan on Sunday and getting ready the next couple days to make sure that we've got our game plan in place and guys know the details that we talked about heading into the Tuesday night game do have a direct correlation to performance and I think the younger guys and the older guys as well, their first year in the system, are starting to embrace that a little bit and we're starting to see carryover, which I mentioned earlier, which I think is critical."

You've had a run of games with four days off in between. How does that help your team?

JG: "Well, it doesn't hurt. What it really does to be honest with you is it gives you one of those four days to get your body back in order. We didn't do a whole lot the day after in terms of Northwestern to Nebraska and Nebraska now to Michigan just to get our bodies back. It's that time of year in January and February where, I think Jerry West use to say, if I only played on the nights where my body felt good I would have played in only 20 percent of the NBA games I played in. So it's that time of year for everybody, for all players. It gives you a chance to get your body back a little bit and mind back and then have two really solid days of preparation. For us the biggest thing has been ourselves. We worried far less about the opponent, especially here of late. We do that anyway and more about ourselves. Moving the ball better, screening better, defending dribble penetration better. I think for us right now it's about 80 percent us and 20 percent opponent in terms of how we've approached it, and we're going to continue doing that moving forward. I think that's how you have a chance to get better, especially with a Year One team that's learning system, terminology and trying to develop the habits that we want them to develop at both ends of the floor."

How is Tracy (Abrams) holding up to the wear and tear? Is he OK now?

JG: "Yeah just sore, he's just a little bit sore. Obviously we've done the right thing there and x-rayed and done all those things. He's fine. It's just that time of year, he's played a lot of minutes, we try to play an up-tempo when we get the ball on offense, we're asking him to do a lot of things defensively and it's January you've kind of got to fight through it. Some of the dog days you've kind of got to grind it out and Tracy is a tough kid and I'm sure he'll be fine."

Brandon (Paul) has been playing a lot at the point. Can you talk about that?

JG: "There's a lot on his shoulders. There's a lot on Tracy's shoulders. We're playing some guys some heavy minutes, so it's not just Brandon. It just, it is what it is. We have what we have. I think those guys on Tuesday night played with exceptional effort. We found a little bit of a flow. We did get in some foul trouble. We fouled a little bit too much. If I was going to be critical of one thing I thought we had about six or seven fouls that were a little bit sloppy. That's something we need to clean up on the defensive end. You know, we're asking a lot of everybody, not just Brandon."

Are you planning on sticking with the starters from the Nebraska game?

JG: "Yeah, I'm leaning that way. We've got two more days of practice left, but I'm leaning that way."

Michigan has a great guard in Trey Burke. Thoughts on him...

JG: "Great kid, great family, terrific player. Makes guys better, can score it in all areas of the court, he's competitively tough, but there's no question he's having that type of year. His assist to turnover ratio, it's disgusting in addition to the scoring that he brings to their team and he brings a competitiveness to the game that all coaches can appreciate and admit. I saw a stat the other day that I think the last player in the Big Ten to average 17-plus points and seven-plus assists per game was Magic Johnson and he was pretty good. He's having a heck of a year. There's no question, when people talk about him, Big Ten player of the year, national player of the year candidate, it's deservedly so."

Is this Michigan personnel the best you've seen yet?

"JG: "Obviously they've got great personnel. We've went against other teams that have great personnel as well. It's certainly up there. It's certainly up there. There's no question about that. ... They have a good blend of guys that have experience and guys that are younger that are certainly bringing things to the table for their team. Obviously they're very, very talented and that freshman class is a big part of that."

How do you slow down Michigan's wings?

JG: "Obviously you've got to get back. I mean that's the most important thing. You don't want to give them anything easy, but that's easier said than done. They've got a lot of weapons. They've got guys that can shoot the ball. They've got guys that can finish above the rim. They've got size. Obviously they've got an elite level point guard. They're really good."

Is this Michigan team better than the team you beat (at Ohio) last year in the tournament?

JG: "Well I think both teams are really good. You know there's some similarities in terms of personnel, the freshman class has obviously been added. I thought that Novak and Stewart Douglas brought some experience and some other things to the table maybe, but I think both teams are (good). Last year's team, I thought, was really good. They won the Big Ten, or were co-champions and this year's team is really, really good as well."

Do you think your team is excited for these games, these big moments?

JG: "You sure hope so. If you don't, you don't have a pulse. They've got to embrace challenges and moments. It's funny, the seniors, I talked to them the other day, they're down to the last two to two-and-a-half months of their season. Yeah, you've got to embrace challenges. You've got to embrace the journey. You've got to try to enjoy the journey and try to get a little bit better every day. Control the things that you can control. I think we've kind of got re-centered back on that, especially over the last week. I liked our guys mindset heading into the game Tuesday. You know obviously the kids played with great effort and toughness on Tuesday night and then they've been the same way in practice yesterday. We're just going to control the things we can control and just keep getting a little bit better."

How do you balance the excitement before the game?

JG: "Well, we've talked about trying to play at a certain level, the standard and concentrating on doing your job and what you're supposed to do on both ends of the floor. Guys like challenges. I love challenges. I know we've got some competitive guys in our locker room. That is what it is. They'll probably have some butterflies before. If they don't, something is wrong. They should feel that edge and feel that way when they get a chance to compete. Obviously Sunday is another opportunity to do that."

What did you think about Duke getting blown out by Miami?

JG: "You know I'm so worried about our team to be honest with you. I know in college basketball anything can happen on any given night. i know that. Any given night anything can happen. Maybe that's the first thing that comes to mind. I don't get to see other team's play a whole lot unless we're playing them through scouting. I've invested more time into what we're doing. I see scores every once in a while. Obviously was the margin surprising? Sure. That's not very typical when you see a score like that. It is what it is. It's one game and I'm sure, believe me, it's not Coach K's first rodeo. They'll get it figured out."

How important is this stretch, the next five games?

JG: "Yeah, I'm not even thinking about that. I'm not even taking one game at a time, I'm taking one day at a time right now. I think that's really important with the team we have. Every practice matters. Everything we're doing matters, keep getting a little bit better. I think teams at this time of year go one way or the other. We want to do everything we can to control being as good at being a little bit better today than we were yesterday and the same thing the next day and just getting a little bit better. That's our focus right now. Those results and those things will take care of themselves."

Talk about D.J. Richardson's last performance...

JG: "I was happy for him. The thing I said after the game, I've been doing it for 19 years, you know you have special offensive performances like that where he scored 30. I thought he was terrific on the offensive end. I don't know how many I've had where a guy has exerted that much effort and energy level on the defensive end. I thought he was as good or better on defense than he was on offense. When you do that and you play the number of minutes that he played and you have that going on both sides of the ball, so to speak, that's what I thought was really impressive, really impressive. Not necessarily the 30 points but that plus the way he defended was what I thought was extraordinary."

It was good to get him out of that shooting slump...

JG: "We've been doing just what we normally do. We don't change a whole lot because we're making or missing them."

Did you change the approach in practice with his shooting...

JG: "He shot the ball well in practices and had some games where he didn't shoot as well as he did in practice. That stuff's just is what it is. I want to make sure he's getting good ones. The other guys did a good job of recognizing he had the hot hand, we ran some stuff for him and I thought we executed it pretty well."

Do you plan to keep Tyler (Griffey) coming off the bench?

JG: "He's been more physical. I think he's been more locked in. He's getting more rebounds per minute played. I think he's doing other things to help our team other than making shots. I think he's done that a couple games in a row. He's done that in practice as well. So yes, I think that's why I'm leaning that way and probably going to go that way again on Sunday. He got in a little bit of foul trouble on Tuesday but a couple other guys did as well. I like his physical disposition."

Do you anticipate having to play a different tempo against Michigan, a team that also likes to play fast...

JG: "Nah, I think you've got to be who you are. Not necessarily. Not necessarily. I think you've got to be efficient. You've got to have quality possessions. You know, regardless of how many there are in the game if you take bad shots against them or you turn the ball over it's a dunk or a 3. They are explosive in transition. I think quality possessions regardless of the number are the most important thing. You've got to try to be efficient."

What do think about the matchup between their guards and you guards?

JG: "Well, we'll see. We'll see. I know they feel pretty good about their guards. Obviously we've got some talented guards as well. You know, we'll let the play kind of determine that. It's our team versus Michigan. We're not going to play 3-on-3, but I know their guards are really talented and we've got some talented guards, but as Bill Parcells would say, sometimes talent and potential will get your butt kicked. You've got to play with toughness. You've got to do what you're supposed to do. Just because you're talented doesn't guarantee anything. Certainly their guards are talented. I think ours are talented as well."

Back to D.J.'s shooting, were you able to work inside to out to help get him open?

JG: "I think you can get better 3s by playing inside-out. I think every coach knows that, by getting them in transition or inside out. His were variety. He did get a couple inside-out. He got a couple on some set plays. Got one in transition, one on a broken play. I think it was kind of a variety on the ones he made and attempted on Tuesday night. Anytime in a possession the ball can touch the paint via the pass and dribble I think it's a good thing."

Have you been working on passes into the paint with your guards?

JG: "We've been working on passing. We really spent a lot of time to be honest with you. I think we're starting to see some carryover. That's what I was alluding to with the introductory statement, the initial statement. Whether it's dribbling, shooting, footwork, passing, you know all those different things we're working on, our position coaches our working with our guys on them and we're working them pretty religiously in practice, so we're starting to see some carryover for sure."

Are bounce passes into the post something you track from each game?

JG: "I don't think you want to pre-determine that. A lot of that depends on how the guy guarding the ball handler or the passer is playing him, where his hands are. Obviously you're trying to move his hands and get the ball in there in a position where the guy can do something with it. We don't prescribe that it has to be an air pass, it has to be a bounce. A lot of that's just feel and instincts based on how the defense is playing the ball."

Why is D.J. such a good defender?

JG: "He's smart. He's tough. He cares about it. I'd say that'd be a good starting point, those three things. He's very detailed. All those things and then obviously he has some ability. But I think it really starts with his basketball IQ defensively, his toughness and just the fact that he cares about it at such a high level. He doesn't attach offense to how he plays on defense, which part of that is probably maturity and experience. He's been playing a while. He's older. Those would be some of the things I would say make him stand out. ... I think he's real good. I think he's really good. He's good on the ball. He's good off the ball. He's good. He's a good defender."

Is the kind of performance he had against Nebraska something that could carry over for him?

JG: "Well I hope it is. He really works at it. That's why I said after the game to him and the media, it couldn't happen to a better guy. He tries to do everything right, everything you ask him to do. He works at it hard. Obviously I'm hoping that Tuesday night, hopefully he can piggyback that and continue to make shots for us."

Does D.J. get more room because of Brandon out there?

JG: "I think it helps. There's no question about that, but I don't think a lot of people are leaving D.J. either. They open up the floor for you. I think it's a luxury to have both those guys that can shoot the ball like that. I think they complement one another well. I certainly think that it helps for sure that Brandon is out there. I think Brandon would say the same thing in regard to D.J."

And vice versa, does Brandon get more opportunities because of D.J.?

JG: "Yeah I think so, for sure. I think the fact that we've got guys that are out there that are capable of making shots I think that really helps your offense for sure in terms of spacing and how people guard things. I think they all complement one another in that regard because you go into a game game planning and a guy can maybe not have a particular game that was good but if you look at those guy's body of work, I think when most people prepare for them they're not saying, hey, let's leave Brandon Paul wide open tonight and see if he makes them. Let's leave D.J. Richardson wide open tonight and see if he makes them. Let's leave Tyler Griffey tonight and hope he misses them. I think it's the opposite, and I think with those guys having the capability of making shots it opens up some things for one another. Those guys complement each other well."

How is Mike LaTulip doing?

JG: "Well, Mike's practiced well. He practiced really well (Thursday). He may have had as good a practice as he's had here (Thursday). He was really good. You just kind of keep getting better. That was his approach (Thursday). I thought he did a good job (Thursday). I think he's getting better at both ends. He's understanding more of what I want him to do at both ends of the floor and starting to mature and grow a little bit with what we're doing in practice. He uses practice to get better. He's certainly done that the last couple weeks in particular. You can see him getting better, taking care of the ball better, knowing where we need him to be defensively better. He's getting better."

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