Groce Q&A: Pre-Michigan State

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

Opening statement...

JG: "Obviously we've had a really, maybe as good a practice yesterday, I thought we practiced really well and did some really good things. I felt like we practiced really well last week. I feel like we're getting better in a lot of areas. We've got to sure up a couple areas and then hope to make a few more shots, but I like the direction our execution is headed, for sure. I think, you know especially over the last couple of weeks the way guys have approached practice, been very mature and feel like we're getting better in a lot of areas, and that's really what you can control. Right now I liked our guys' mindset (Tuesday) in practice. I thought that they responded from the film that we showed them from the Michigan game. I thought that there were some things in the game that we can control better. I think the players understand that and they saw that. As good as Michigan is, and they're certainly a good team, we certainly didn't make a whole lot of shots. There were some other things that we could have controlled. Those are the things that we worry about on a daily basis in terms of our execution and doing our job and the guys' disposition and attitudes have been really good. They're wanting to do those things better."

About Michigan State...

JG: "They've obviously got great size, and as all his (Coach Tom Izzo) teams have done over the years, they rebound the basketball well. The guys, you can tell they know their role. They have a post presence with (Derrick) Nix and (Adreian) Payne and (Branden) Dawson. The size of the guys even coming off the bench in (Alex) Gauna and (Matt) Gostello, they've got four or five guys there that give them a lot of size. I think that's the thing that certainly stands out, and then just watching Gary Harris play. Certainly really gifted offensively and I know Coach came out this week and talked about what he brings to the table for them defensively for a freshman. Been very impressed with his effort and discipline on that end as well. Then obviously Appling is a big part of what they do at both ends of the floor. I think he's really good defensively, a good on-ball defender, makes plays at winning time of the game. I think he's a winner. I've enjoyed watching them on film. (Izzo) has done a great job with his team. Obviously I think they are hitting their stride."

On the bigs being more assertive and playing more aggressively, especially on the boards...

TG: "I think they've gotten a lot better. I do. We're getting it inside more. I think they're sealing better. I think passing has gotten better. They've offered a presence in there on the glass better. Sam had five offensive rebounds. Nnanna had four. I believe Griffey had a couple as well. I think Griff has been rebounding the ball as good as he has over a three-game stretch in his career. There's no question those guys are getting better. (Assistant coach) Dustin (Ford) does a great job at the four and five guys and they've been approaching practice with the mindset to get better at both ends. They've watched a lot of film and there's no question that I've definitely seen a lot of improvement in a lot of areas with those guys."

On the way that Tracy Abrams is currently playing...

JG: "I think Tracy is trying to find that balence between scoring and trying to make guys better on the offensive end. Defensively he's got to give us more. He knows that. I love Tracy's disposition and attitude. He wants to be really good. I like coaching him. I just think he can give us more on that end of the floor than he's giving us right now. He saw some film over the last couple days and he really responded well in practice yesterday, so we've got to get more consistent play out of him for sure."

Having beaten Michigan as coach last season at Ohio, Groce's thoughts on comparing last year's Wolverines squad versus this year...

JG: "I obviously thought they were a really good team last year. I just think comprehensively they have more weapons this year, so they put you in more dilemmas with what you're trying to take away. You can't take away everything. No one can, especially against a really good team. They have multiple threats. I thought we did a really good job on Burke. I thought we did a really good job executing our game plan. They got us on some off ball screens. That was a little bit disappointing, but I thought we rebounded well with them. We missed some block outs there in the first half that we could have a done a better job of, but we got one more rebound. We got 41 percent of the offensive rebounds back. I thought we did a really good job on Burke and some other guys beat us. Staukus had a really good game efficiency wise. Glenn Robinson did as well. I thought their bigs had an affect on the game as well. They're just deeper and have more threats out there."

On the team's shooting woes...

JG: "The only one I have (in my mind) is Sunday and we were wide open. We ran plays and executed and got shots that we were hitting earlier in the season and we didn't hit them. It is what it is. That's why I talk about controlling the control-ables. We executed a couple things really, really well on Sunday. I thought our set play execution was the best that it's been, and you've got to make a couple, you know. We got guys good shots and got guys in shooting areas and ways to get them in ways that have been their strengths during the season and maybe throughout their career and we didn't make enough of them. Now having said that, if you make a bunch of shots then obviously you can, your margin for error is a little bit larger. We didn't make a bunch on Sunday. I still felt like there's some things we could control. I didn't feel like we blocked out particularly well in the first half, but we got better as the game went on. I thought we were terrific on the offensive glass. We didn't defend a couple screening actions well. Just a couple things that we can control that I thought, with all that said and done you know it's a four point game with nine minutes to go or something like that with us not shooting well and some miscues on things we can control. Those are the ones we've got to sure up."

Aside from Abrams and Nnanna, Groce's thoughts on the rest of the sophomore class...

JG: "Depends on the day. Depends on the day. Sometimes better days than others. You know, the attitude has been great. You know, they work hard. They can obviously be better. As I've said before, I'd like to play all of them but they determine that. Consistency has probably been lacking a little bit, but they're working at it."

On Rayvonte Rice

JG: "There's days where he's really dominant. He's really talented, physically strong, can pass, handle and defend and rebound. He's really, really a good player. There's days where I'd like him to be a little more consistent. He's really been more consistent I think second semester than he was first semester. I think that's progress, but he's working at it and comes in and gets extra lifting, extra shots because he's not playing, and I can see him, he's definitely gotten better for sure."

Has he lost weight?

JG: "Oh for sure. I think at one point he told me at Drake he was high 260s maybe. He's about 235 right now."

Where do you want him weight-wise?

JG: "About 235."

Have you talked to the team about some of the wins in non-conference and reminded the players that they can play with good teams and have done it before?

JG: "Yeah we talk about that. We can play better than we're playing right now. I do think we're getting better in a lot of the detail things, which is what should happen when you have a good attitude and the kids practice hard and they're in the first year of a new system, every day that goes by, as long as they have the proper mindset they should be getting better at rotating and screening and understanding what we want and we're doing that for sure. If you said to me what's the biggest difference right now versus earlier in the year when we beat some of those teams, I think it's really two things. I think one, our defensive efficiency has been up and down. We've got to impact the game more defensively than what we are. I felt like we did that early on better than what we're doing now, but, you know, I thought that Nebraska was our best defensive game of the year. I thought that we defended ball screens really well on Sunday, as good as we have all year with Burke. At the end of the day, and it's probably not what people want to hear because it's not real complex, but the biggest difference -- shot making. Shot making. You know, to be honest with you we probably had more defensive miscues and mistakes earlier than we have here in the last several weeks, as should be the case because we're getting better, but we overcame some of those things because we were making shots at such a high level. Our margin for error was larger when you make shots at that level."

And to follow up, you thought you got good shots against Michigan?

TG: "Oh no question. No question. I thought Richardson got nine 3s off on Sunday. I thought six of them were terrific looks. I thought all three of Griffeys were terrific looks. I thought Paul forced a couple, but Paul's talented. You've got to let him do that a little bit. Made a couple big ones there early. Ironically, it's weird watching Brandon's shot in succession because I thought he made tough ones and missed the ones that were wide open. Sometimes that happens. I thought Nnanna had good shots, had a jump-hook, had a lay-up, one of the lay-ups, we had three lay-ups at point blank range we just didn't convert. When you're playing a team like Michigan you've got to make a few of those. You do. I think our execution has gotten better, for sure. At both ends we're doing some things better. I think our bigs are getting better. I think we have more presence inside with the rebounding, the physicality. We're getting better there. I do think our guards are making better decisions. We've just got to throw a few more in."


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