On the first day of class he told his students straight up. The teacher had favorites.
The kids stared back, both amused and perplexed by this bit of honesty.
"I'd say, ‘yeah, I like the people more who do what they're supposed to do all the time,' " Groce recalls. "I like them more than the people who don't do what they're supposed to do."
Now 20 years later, Groce hasn't altered his method. In the present moment, Jon Ekey is one of his favorite students.
That's because, "Jon does what he's supposed to do a lot," Groce says.
Ekey is one of the newest members of the Illinois basketball team. He's also one of the oldest, one of the smartest, according to Groce. He graduated with a degree in business administration from Illinois State in May and is currently enrolled in the UI master's program in recreation, sport and tourism. Off the court, it's clear he has it together. On the court, he's just as polished.
Ask Groce about the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Ekey. Make sure your schedule is cleared.
"Very intelligent, skilled, can shoot the ball, he passes it well, he takes care of the ball, he's a deceivingly good athlete, he goes to the glass, he does what he's supposed to do," Groce said. "It's amazing how that works out."
So far it has worked out for Illinois and Ekey. Graduating early and immediately eligible to play, Ekey wanted to test his game at the highest level possible. Illinois needed to accumulate older voices due to roster turnover. A stretch-forward was necessary, too. That he shot over 36 percent from the 3-point line at Illinois State had fans excited about the blast of offense he could provide. His game is about so much more, though.
As a junior in high school he led the state of Missouri with 151 blocked shots. He ranks sixth on ISU's all-time list with 110 rejections. He can rebound, too, something he's already excelling at under Groce. He led the team with nine rebounds in the final exhibition Sunday. And he was one of two players to grade out defensively.
"That's one of the things Coach Groce is really stressing, getting in there and rebounding," Ekey said. "Maybe I'll give up some size here and there, but athletically just working to be able to go in there and grab rebounds and tip them out if I can and keep the ball alive."
Ekey's already a starter. He had the highest grade out of any player from the opening practice up to the first exhibition. He's so good on film that it actually rattled assistant Dustin Ford, known for taking pride in picking apart guys in the grade out to balance Groce's usual positive spin.
Ford recently told Groce, "It's hard, I'm grading practice, I'm trying to ding him. There are possessions where you just can't ding him."
Given their position-listing and personal appearance, many have asked if Ekey compares to former Illini Tyler Griffey. While some things line up (Griffey is a little bit taller), the two have different games according to junior big man Nnanna Egwu.
"You can't just play for his shot," Egwu said of Ekey. "He'll shot-fake you and attack the basket. If you're not ready he's going to dunk on you. If you're not ready he'll put on a show."
Griffey was a four that could play the five. Ekey is a four that can play the three. Both have good shooting range, but that's where the comparison ends.
"Jon's a little bit more skilled probably with dribbling and passing," Groce said. "Jon's a deceivingly good athlete, a very smart player just like Griff is. So there are some similarities but it's not necessarily tit for tat like some people would think."
Like Griffey though, Ekey has one season under Groce to leave his mark at Illinois. Similar to Sam McLaurin last season, Ekey has come in and embraced a leadership role. His teammates already respect him.
"That's the thing, he's so solid," Egwu said. "He picks things up so fast. He's the one that's going to start teaching other people. With the freshmen it's hard for them to understand and pick it up the way he picks it up."
So Ekey, like Groce, may know a thing or two about being a teacher. And it's clear that he understands that the best teachers are the ones who never stop learning themselves.
"Yeah I mean, that's one of the perks of being around for a long time," Ekey said. "I've been around quite a few coaches now. Obviously there are negatives. Coach Ford, he's shown me a few things. It's never perfect out there in any game. I take pride in doing what I do well and just focusing on what I do well."