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Summer Conversations: John Groce (Part I) June 6, 2012

I talked to John Groce for 20 minutes on Friday. And then I chatted with Mike Thomas for 10 minutes. Then I sat down with Tim Beckman for 20 minutes. And then I spent the next 4 hours thinking about my conversation with John Groce.

He’s ridiculously impressive.

This is not to disparage Mike Thomas or Tim Beckman. Both had great things to say, as you’ll see later in this series. But John Groce was simply ridiculously impressive. So much so that I began to self-loathe during the interview itself, hating myself for not being 100% on board the moment he was mentioned as a candidate.

Talk to him for three minutes and you can see why Groce was such a hit as a recruiter at Ohio State. He looks you in the eye, he speaks with conviction, and he’s delightfully candid. Ever talk to one of those people that leaves you feeling inadequate because they appear to have put hundreds of hours of thought behind their opinions? That’s John Groce. Ridiculously impressive. Here’s Part I of our chat:

You just hit the 2 month mark in Champaign. How have your first 60 days been?

It’s been a whirlwind. There’s days where you feel like you’re drinking water out of a fire hose, to be honest. But it’s been good. I get a chance to build something special, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the administration and the people in the community who will be part of that. These caravans have been awesome because you’re meeting all kinds of different people in Illini Nation around the state.

We’ve had a lot of transition in these 60 days, but it’s been good. Sometimes, people are resistant to change, but I believe change can lead to growth, and we’ve seen the changes of the last 60 days as a great opportunity to move our program forward.

Talk to me about your seniors. Let’s start with Tyler Griffey. As a fan, he’s probably the one player I’m most excited to see take a big step forward in his final season.

First of all, he had a fantastic spring. He shot the ball really well, and I was really impressed with his skill level. He finished second in our one-on-one team tournament. Brandon Paul ended up winning it, but Tyler was up in the final game and had a chance to win it. His ball skills really stood out to me – his skill level, his basketball IQ.

I think the three things we want to help Tyler with are strength, conditioning, and defense. I think we can get him a lot stronger between now and next season, and we need to get his cardiovascular conditioning to a ridiculous level. And then defensively – people have said to me “hey, he got pulled a lot”. I’ve watched a little bit of film, and sometimes that can be mistaken. Sometimes people might think that was for a missed shot. I’m not one of those guys that gets too worked up over missed shot; if it’s a good shot and the guy misses, hey, we’re not going to make them all.

But I think the one thing we have to do not only with Tyler but with everyone is to hold them accountable on the defensive end. Some of the three-point defense numbers we had, the defensive efficiency numbers we had, those are obviously going to have to get a lot lower or we’re not going to be very successful. So Tyler, as a senior and a guy who has a great basketball IQ, needs to really help us and take pride in that and be accountable just like everyone else on the defensive end of the floor.

I think in terms of our style of play, Tyler is going to benefit big-time in terms of how we play. He’s going to stretch the floor for us – we’ve always played a stretch 4 – and he’s going to be able to get threes off penetration. He’s going to have a lot of freedom to shoot the ball. So the offensive end is going to take care of itself, and I think his skill set will fit well there. The question is, not only for him but for the rest of his teammates, is how well are they going to defend? Because defense plus taking care of the ball equals playing time if you play for me. So he has to do those things at a high level, especially on the defensive end.

How about DJ? What do you see for him?

Similar, although he’s a guard and Tyler is a forward. DJ also had a great spring. Most of the stuff we did was offensive skill stuff, and when you put him in a situation where he’s catching and shooting and using his midrange game, he looks big time.

We tried to work on his handle this spring. We want to tighten up his handle and make him a better ball handler. I know he’s been working on that on his own a lot. That’s one area he needs to improve in.

But again, for our team, for each individual, it’s going to start on the defensive end. He and his teammates have to start showing an extraordinary commitment to being hard to score against. We have to bring those numbers down. I’m hoping DJ can be a guy we can count on to guard the basketball on the perimeter and keep the ball in front.

And Brandon – talk about Brandon for a little bit.

The biggest thing with Brandon is the mental side. I think Brandon is really talented. I think he’s a great athlete – he has length, he has size for his position, he has the ability to defend and obviously be a terrific offensive player. But for him it’s his mindset.

Right now, as an older player, the thing I’m trying to get him to understand is that the way to success for our team is for him and Tyler and DJ and Sam McLaurin as well, that it’s leading and giving and helping the others. I know Brandon is one of those guys who is always going to take care of his business – he’s a hard worker, a great student, a great kid – and now what I want him to do as an older guy is reach those other guys and bring them along with him. Care about them reaching a high level. That’s the number one thing I’ll be challenging Brandon on.

Let’s talk about fandom, and I promise not to dig deep into the growing-up-in-Indiana stuff. I write a fan site – everything is slanted towards the fan experience. What about your fan experience? Are you a sports fan? Are there professional teams that you follow when you’re not coaching?

I grew up watching a lot of Big Ten basketball, mostly Indiana as you mentioned, and I watched some Notre Dame football. That’s all from my grandmother, who lived with us since I was 12. My family always rooted for the Cincinnati Reds, so I’ve been a Reds fan for a long time, and we always rooted at a very high level for the Chicago Bears, so I’ve been a Bears fan since I was young.

In terms of the NBA, I root for the guys I’ve coached. Someone asked me the question yesterday “who do you want to win the NBA Finals”, and I said the Thunder because I coached Daequan Cook. I was rooting for Evan Turner in the other series, David West in another series, so I pay attention to different teams because it gives me a chance to follow their careers and root for them.

Do you follow what fans are saying about your teams on the internet? Blogs and message boards and such?

No. Never. I don’t read anything in the media in-season. I have a great deal of respect for the media because they have a job to do, so I always try to make myself accessible because we have a great product at Illinois and we want to promote that, but at the same time, I have a feel for what’s going on with my team because I’m there every day, so I don’t need to read about what’s going on.

Outside of the season we obviously pay attention to the recruiting stuff quite a bit. Social media and blogs and stuff like that, we have a guy on our staff that is assigned to that. Sometimes you can get helpful information about recruiting, so we’d be foolish not to use it as a tool.

Speaking of recruiting, what’s your philosphy on early offers and getting in early with kids?

We want to do that for sure – we want to get in early with kids. We want to evaluate them as early as possible. It’s been a little tough – we’ve been here 60 days and we inherited roughly six scholarships for ’12 and ’13. I would like to evaluate some ’14′s and ’15′s. My background is to get way out in front on those guys, and I think we will do that. But it’s been tough in these 60 days.

We put recruits through a rigorous test as a staff in terms of three areas: we want to have a great pulse for what they’re like citizenship-wise, we want to have a great pulse for where they are academically, and we want to have a great pulse for what they are as a basketball player. How talented are they? Do they fit our style of play? What position or positions do they play? How versatile are they? Are they a winner – do they come from a winning program? How well have they been coached?

We have a litany of things that we go through. Obviously not everyone is a home run in all areas that we evaluate, but we want to know what we’re getting, so we evaluate all of those things first. We do evaluate early, and often, but we don’t offer a ton of kids. We don’t take a shotgun recruiting approach where we’re offering 50 kids because we see their name on some list. In a perfect world, we want to get them to campus and get to know them first, or have someone who knows them really well vouch for them. We want to learn as much as we can about them, and then when we feel comfortable that they can be an Illini guy, then we’ll place an offer on the table.

BexleyIllini June 6th, 2012

Interesting how JG stresses defense – I thought that was BW’s focus last year?

PittsburghNellie June 6th, 2012

I saw Illinois give up more easy looks under the basket last season than I have in my life. Weber’s focus was to not lose games and he couldn’t even do that.

Illinigrad June 6th, 2012

He is very articulate. If his teams play as well as he speaks we are in for a good run.

illiniranger June 6th, 2012

This is really great work. Thank you for this insight – the best thing on Jim Groce I’ve read from any outlet.

breadman June 6th, 2012

It is my hope that The Groce can discover the key to unleash the inner Larry Bird that we all know is inside the Griffey by next season!!! Wouldn’t that be great to have our very own Larry Bird play-alike contest winner!!!