Pre-Game Q&A: John Groce

AUSTIN, Texas - Illinois coach John Groce discusses the matchup with Miami in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

AUSTIN, Texas - Illinois coach John Groce discusses the matchup with Miami in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

COACH GROCE: Obviously we're excited to have the opportunity to play in the round of 32 and our guys have worked really hard to get to this point. Playing a great Miami team tomorrow. You don't win the ACC championship or the tournament championship unless you've done a lot of things right. Obviously they're well coached, they have got great size, great depth, good guard play, they shoot the ball well, they're very good defensively, very solid. So it's going to be a great challenge for us tomorrow. But our guys are excited about it, to have the opportunity to still be playing in March and being in the NCAA tournament. Then the round of 32 is something that those guys will always have with them that they will always be able to take with them. Step one was getting in the tournament, step two is trying to survive and advance. We were able to do that in the second round and now here we head to the third round and the goal's the same, to try to find a way to be a little bit better and score a few more points tomorrow than Miami. It will be a great challenge, but one we're looking forward to.

Q. First you've seen Miami on film now. Firstly, how much coffee have you had over the last 24 hours and secondly, what are their bigs presenting for you as a challenge?

COACH GROCE: Well I stuck with my two cups. Okay. So that's my deal. I have a deal with my wife. A few years ago when we were in the tournament I drank a couple pots. So I've tried to curtail it back. Second question, haven't had a chance to watch a lot of them since our game yesterday and really impressed. I just mentioned a lot of it at the outset here with our initial comments. But their guard play, Larkin makes everybody better. I think that Larkin and Scott are really good defensively. The three man does a great job of playing off of people and getting shots and is a really good 3-point shooter. They're a good 3-point shooting team, they have the ability to drive the ball to the paint, they post the ball, they're great on the glass, they have good size, they have good depth, and you can tell they're very confident. As they should be. And he's done a great job with them. They're an older team, some of their guys are fifth year and I think in one case even a sixth year guy. So they're an older team, which I'm sure he would tell you probably played to their advantage all season long. I always said I think experience is a great teacher. So we have got our hands full. But one that our guys are excited about.

Q. How similar are Larkin and Trey Burke?

COACH GROCE: Well I think there's some similarities and primarily and I'll keep it simple, in two regards: One is the fact that both of them can score. They have the capability of scoring the basketball at different levels. Whether it's the 3-point shot, the mid range shot, or getting to the rim. When you do foul them, both of them make free throws. They're very well rounded scoring players. The second part that I think that makes them similar, as indicative of his stat line, Larkin's stat line yesterday when he had eight or nine assists, I don't have it in front of me, is that they have the ability to make guys better around them with the pass. They see things, they can make their team better, they make their teammates better. So I think in those two ways they're certainly similar.

Q. Brandon was in here, he was talking about how impressed he was when you first got there taking the time to get to know each player individually. What types of things did you ask them when you met with them and how does that help you as a coach, especially getting to know a new team?

COACH GROCE: Well it was really important. I said all along I think it's difficult, there's different ways to skin a cat, but for me I've always felt like to coach our players I have to know them. I just talked about it with the gentleman in the back. Whether what motivates each guy, how do they learn best, what drives them, what are their goals, what are their -- we all have them -- insecurities, what are their homes, what are their dreams, where are their minds at, where are they at academically, do they have a girlfriend, what's their dog's name, cat's name. Where do you live? Just all those -- brothers, sisters, names, mom, dad, all those different things, family situation, background, just in terms of trying to learn as much as you can about them. I think it's in my experience in coaching, we care a lot about our guys. Our assistant coaches do an unbelievable job, they do, they deserve a lot of credit. In terms of getting to know our players as well. But I've always said if they feel that it's very genuine and you know that you care about them as people first, and students second, and then athletes third, then they usually run through a wall for you. And these guys have done that. I'm grateful for that. They were very open minded. So one thing I remember about those meetings, and as our relationship has grown from it's basically been a year, last March until now, it's been pretty cool. I have enjoyed getting to know each and everyone of them and those guys are a part of our family, my wife would tell you that. And they will always be a part of our family. They have done a great job in terms of being open minded and I think it's a big reason why we have been able to have some success.

Q. With all the Chicago guys on your roster, the history of the recruiting pipeline to the public league, especially Simeon, the aggressive efforts by the AD to market to Chicago, how much does each tournament win here mean for Chicago and that area?

COACH GROCE: Well I think it means a lot for Illinois. It means, obviously a lot for our alums and all the Illini Nation and Chicago's a huge part of that. That's our largest alumni base or network of people. A lot of alums up there. I think it certainly helps, I think that I've always said success breeds success. I think that it gives credibility for sure. We still have a long way to go. We haven't arrived by any means, but the one thing I -- and you mentioned our athletic director and just our whole administration. We understand the importance of our state and of Chicago and I know he's working very diligently, our staff is as well, we're all doing our part, to connect. And I think that's the most important thing. Every day I get up, I love going to work because every person that I come in contact with at the University of Illinois that's around our program wants to get better every day. And I think that's the type of organization that you want to be in. Certainly our push in that area is one of those areas where we're attacking aggressively.

Q. What did you see from the film study of Miami's perimeter defense?

COACH GROCE: I think that Larkin and Scott are terrific on defense. I think that their size allows those guys to even be more aggressive at times because you're funneling into bigs and a lot of depth up front. I think they're very, very sound. I think those two guys are really, really good on ball defenders and they get contributions from other guys too. But there's no question that they stand out in terms of their ability, especially to guard the basketball.

Q. Coach, Larkin and Durand Scott get most of the headlines and most of the stats. What do the big guys do that doesn't show up on the score sheet that concerns another coach?

COACH GROCE: Just their size. Their ability to rebound. Offensive rebound, defensive rebound, their ability to play the post with their size. I think those guys screen well. They do a good job of getting deep position and for the most part scoring around the basket well. I think they bring a lot to their team. And then there's-- they come off the bench with even more size. So I think their depth up front is also really a strength for them.

Q. Seems like any time you ask anybody about Nnanna Egwu the first thing they say is how hard he works. I'm wondering what you've seen from him in terms of his dedication, for his development, and the progress he's made this season.

COACH GROCE: Well he's made a ton of progress. I think that even my hope is this time next year we see even another leap. I don't see any reason why -- he's only been playing the game for about six years now. Six plus years. He's going to continue to get stronger, his work ethic is off the charts. You're exactly right when you say Nnanna Egwu, one of the first things that comes to mind for me is his work ethic and how hard he works. He works every day. His character is exceptional. He's going to do whatever you ask him to do and then some. And I really appreciate that about Nnanna. He cares about the university of Illinois, it means something to him that he's from Chicago, plays at the state school, takes a lot of pride in that. So he's got a lot of great attributes and I think because of that you're going to see him, not only has he got better this season I think you're going to continue to see him get better.

Q. All season these guys have kind of taken an us against the world approach and tomorrow's probably another example of that, where not a lot of people giving you much of a chance. But how much does that influence the way they play and the way they compete?

COACH GROCE: Well, I think it does some. It's only human nature I think when you hear -- and you heard it going into yesterday's game. There wasn't a lot of people that picked us yesterday either and those guys know that. I can maybe assist them in not tweeting, but I can't stop them from reading social media and watching TV and in their rooms and in their hotel rooms. I mean they know. I think pride takes over a little bit. We got a lot of proud guys in our locker room. A lot of competitive guys. I'm sure that they're looking forward to the challenge tomorrow. But you're right, they have been in so many situations where their backs have been against the wall and no one gave them a chance from the beginning, really, until now. So they're used to that. I think it drives them a little bit. I think if you're a competitor then certainly it does that.

Q. I understand you and your staff keep track of a pretty vast array of statistics. Can you just talk about your love of the numbers part of the game and where that came from.

COACH GROCE: Well, I don't think it tells you the entire story, obviously, because you're talking about a team game. You're talking about a connection of five players playing the game together out there and that's as or more important. Having said that, I do think statistics can tell you a lot. We use them quite a bit. Looking at a team's efficiency, both offensively and defensively. Looking at individual player characteristics. I think all those things are helpful. Especially on quick turn arounds. I remember how we used to scout back in the '90s when I started and guys before that would even say I remember when they used to live scout. And it's changed so much now. Everything's video. You can get information a lot more rapidly. I think that's helpful certainly in tournament settings for sure.

Q. To follow-up on that, does being a math teacher at all help for your love of numbers?

COACH GROCE: Yeah, I've always, obviously, I've always loved numbers. I was a math teacher at one point and I think that's probably some of that. Being around sports my whole life counting, I've got a seven year old son and he plays his bracket out every day. So I went to his parent/teacher conference last week and they told me that he was exceptional with numbers. So to say I was proud would be an understatement. But, yeah, math, that's kind of our, our background a little bit and it's carried over to Connor, which is good. But I do think you can learn a lot from statistics and we certainly use those to our advantage.

Q. Hearing you take about that, Coach Larranaga's also a total numbers freak, number cruncher. He was an economics major in college. He uses all those computer statistics and all that. I'm wondering, do you feel any kinship with him also having been at a Mid Major and what he did with George Mason and how much did you follow his career and what do you think about him as a coach?

COACH GROCE: Well, I followed his career a great deal. I think anyone that's in the business knows Coach Larranaga and his story. He and I are nothing more than acquaintances. Having said that, I don't happen to come from the same coaching tree that he does, I come from a different one. I coached against his team in my first year as head coach when he was at George Mason. We played on the road there at George Mason. That was a tough environment. He did a great job during his tenure there. I've always watched his teams. I've always admired his personality. You can see that he really cares for his players. And you can tell that guys really are attracted to that. So I have a lot of admiration for him. And then certainly I think his coaching speaks for itself and what he's done at George Mason, what he's done with this crew. My assistant coach, Dustin Ford, was a player at Ohio when he was coaching at Bowling Green. So there's some familiarity there. But certainly have a lot of respect for him and what he's done at each and every program that he has been a part of.

Q. On that math question, being a math guy, do you pay any attention to the bracketologies, RPI, strength of schedule, all those statistical things or is that just a distraction?

COACH GROCE: I let my sports information director do that all year. Just because I felt like I can't tell our players to be locked in one game at a time and control the controllables and then be unlike them. I think that would have been hypocritical. So I don't do that. To be honest with you, I didn't pay attention to any of that or know what those things really were until after we finished the Big-10 tournament. Then at that point in time we were done and that's when I started asking DB, Derrick Burson, our media relations guy, some questions about it. But up until that point, none at all.

Q. This doesn't concern your matchup, but Minnesota is here and you faced them. Obviously, they had the best rebounding differential in the Big-10. What is it that makes them so tough?

COACH GROCE: Wow. Probably coach's disposition. His teams have always been that way, if you follow them back, not only at his tenure at Minnesota, but at Kentucky. They have been great at rebounding the ball. I don't know where they stand now. We were talking about numbers, but prior to the game we played them in the Big-10 tournament, they were No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. No. 1 in the Big-10 during Big-10 games. Very physical, do a great job of rebounding the basketball. Obviously you can't get better than being ranked number one in that area. So that's an area of concern every time that we played them.

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