Part II of my chat with Coach Groce. Part I is here. There won’t be a Part III as I suggested yesterday – I got on a transcribing roll last night and pushed through the entire interview. One part would have been too long. Three parts is too short. A two part interview is juuuust right.
Have you ever experienced – as an assistant coach or as a head coach – a year with turnover like you’re facing now with nine new players?
Yes – from year one to year two at Ohio. I think we brought in seven new players, so two less than what we are facing now. You know, sometimes it happens. You can kind of anticipate it. You can tell a little bit. We had three guys leave at the beginning of the spring – I love those guys. They were very valuable in year one. At the end of the day, from a fit perspective and what they wanted to do long term and what their goals were, when we talked to them, maybe (staying) didn’t make the most sense.
But I wish those guys nothing but the best. They were phenomenal – even the guys who didn’t play. Every kid wants to play, and those guys – their attitudes were terrific. So I’m thankful for that. I’ll be anxiously following their careers to see how they do. I’m pulling for them. I told them “look, I’ll be rooting for you. I want you to do well.” So I hope things go well for them.
So you have four scholarship guys returning – only three who played last year, plus Rayvonte who has been sitting out – I guess you’re obviously looking to those guys to lead the team?
Yeah, we’ll see whether they can handle it or not. I hope they can. I know that Tracy and Nnanna did a really good job I think as captains in year one – those guys return. But this is going to be a little bit different for them. As soon as you add or delete one player, I’ve always said that the dynamic of any team changes. And the more additions and deletions you have in any organization, company, or team, there comes a learning curve.
It’s probably too harsh to say “starting over again” like it was in when we came in for year one when everything was new for everyone. That’s probably a little too harsh because Tracy played 30 minutes per game; Nnanna played 28 minutes per game. Ray Ray sat out the whole year but he did everything with us. LaTulip was there for all of the same things. And Joe is a 22 year-old fifth year senior. I’m thankful for all of that.
So I don’t know if it’s quite like completely hitting the reset button, but with nine newcomers there’s no question there’s a learning curve there. There’s a learning curve not only for the players, but for the staff as well, because even in recruiting, as much as you recruit them and you get to know them, you don’t get a chance to be around them on a daily basis until they play for you. Until they’re on campus.
And then you’re around them week one for seven days. And then week two. And classes, and film, and skill, and you start to learn when things get hard, how do they deal with that? I think this summer we’ll learn a great deal. They will, and we will as well.
So if Ahmad Starks gets his waiver, you have two scholarships to give for the 2014 class, and if he doesn’t and is around for two years, you only have one more scholarship to give. Can you talk about what you’re looking for? I know you can’t talk about specific players or anything, but what are you looking for to fill out that next roster?
Well, I think obviously you look at it and you think frontcourt. A frontcourt player in that class makes a lot of sense. And then we’d like to continue to be able to add to our ballhandling. Passing and ballhandling and such. This past year was the first year that I’ve coached a team that had more turnovers than assists. I think we’ll be better this year with that, but I still think we need more.
You know, my wife fixed something for dinner the other night, and it didn’t taste right to her until she added some pepper. That’s my gut feel – we need to add some ballhanding and passing.
And maybe I’ll be wrong. We get to practice eight weeks this summer with the new rules, and maybe we’ll be “wow, some of these guys handle it better than what we thought – we’re OK there.” So that one, the second one, is a little bit more fluid. But for the first one, I think for sure that we need a frontcourt player.
Talk to me about the fanbase. What have you learned about Illini fans in your first year?
Well, they’re passionate, obviously. They love it, they follow it religiously…
Were you surprised at all by the passion? I know you grew up around Big Ten basketball, and you grew up, what, not even 100 miles away from Champaign, but were you surprised at all about the basketballness of Illinois’ fanbase? (Yes, I really did say “basketballness”)
Nah, not really. I think I knew that coming in. Like you said, as a kid, I grew up not to far from Champaign, and I remember watching the Flyin’ Illini and Coach Henson. And then I coached against the great ’05 team. I went to an Illinois game when I was a kid, and I coached in games at in, at that time, the Assembly Hall, so I had a pretty good feel for it.
But until you’re in it… you asked if I had a total grasp of it – not until you’re in it. You can say “hey, they’re fanatical, they love basketball, they love Illinois” and I’d say “yeah, I’m aware of that.” Clearly aware of that, growing up where I did. But you feel it more when you’re in it. And we’re grateful for that.
I think one of the things that is a killer is apathy. And that’s one thing that we don’t have at Illinois. We don’t have apathetic fans – we’re the opposite of that. We’ve got passionate fans who care a great deal about us, and you’d much rather have that, where there’s standards and there’s expectations and there’s passion, and I think we have all those things at Illinois.
I was very surprised by the fan reaction after the Miami loss. I think most fans, and I saw it everywhere, knew that that team gave everything they had. Maybe one call went the other way and whatever and they were upset about that, but I cannot recall the Illini fanbase – message boards, texts from friends, whatever – so positive after an NCAA Tournament loss. It was “this team gave everything they had, those seniors left everything on the court, and it didn’t go our way, but the future seems bright.”
Interesting. I’m glad they feel that way. You’d much rather they feel that way than not. Now, obviously, I can’t control that. I try not to get too high or too low – you do that in this business, and you’ll get gobbled up.
I’ll be honest with you – they should feel that way. They should be proud of those seniors. They should feel proud of that team and the way they bought in. They should feel proud of the way they started the season, and then hit a rough spot, and then dug their way out of it when, in the past, maybe that group of guys on the team didn’t have that respect from those fans. And they found a way to climb out of that deal. I think it spoke really highly of their character and deep down kind of who they were and are.
So I’m glad they feel that way. I’m know I’m proud of them. As I sit here today, shoot, you want to win every game. You prepare to win every game. Yeah you want to play the next weekend. And you know what, if you get beat in that round, that one stings and you wish you had another one. But all in all, if you’re fairly objective – and sometimes it’s hard to be until you’re two to three weeks out and you’re not as emotionally tied to it – you can say “OK let’s really look at this deal”. I can see how they would feel that way. As I sit here today, and as I said earlier in our conversation, that team squeezed a lot of blood out of the turnip.
I want to ask you about one play from last season. It was against Nebraska. You probably won’t remember this play, but Tracy looked at you after a whistle and asked to run a specific play…
Yes. I waved off Dustin (Ford’s) call and said “let him run it.”
I’m actually surprised you remembered that. So do you like that? Do you want a player saying “hey, I see something, and I want to run this instead”.
Absolutely. I love it. He sees it and thinks it’s going to work. And I think that’s the trust that I have with Tracy. I think it’s growing and I think it grew as the season went on. I’m looking forward to building off of that as we head into his junior year.
I try to give those guys a lot of responsibility. And if he saw something and he felt like it was something that we should run and he had a reason why then we rode with it. That’s what I want. I want him thinking the game. I want him taking ownership. You don’t want him to overthink. I think Mike (Dibilviss) said it here today, the Tarkanian quote: “when you think too much, you get slow feet”. And when you have slow feet, you’re not reacting. So you don’t want to overthink.
But I think that some coaches say “hey, I don’t want my players thinking at all so they can just react” – I don’t know about that. There’s a balance there. You don’t want to overthink, but you have to think a little bit. Especially if you’re a point guard. You have to understand time, score, is it a two-for-one, how much time is on the shot clock… you have to have at least some clue.
I think that Tracy, as the year went on, started to get more and more of a pulse for what we were looking for, and I thought he got better.
And Nnanna too.
Oh no question. Both of those guys got a lot better. That’s why they both got Most Improved Player during our player awards along with Rayvonte Rice. That was a tough one. We had our banquet and with all of the other awards it was just one winner, but we had so many guys improve. To be honest with you, we could have given it to even more guys, but we decided to go the underclassman route. But, shoot, Griffey got better from where he was when I first met him to what he was able to do as a senior. Paul had his best year ever. Richardson started to put the ball on the floor more and became a defensive force. I saw lots of guys get better.
And that’s what you want. You want them to continue to get better, even through the progression of the season as well as outside the season. I thought those two guys, from a statistical standpoint, from freshman year to sophomore year, as well as from an attitude standpoint, their bodies, how much better they got in season and how much more they understood the system, I thought Tracy and Nnanna really improved a lot. And now, hopefully they can make another jump.
OK, last question. When you look at this roster – and I know you kind of need to see what the guys coming in will bring – do you think your offense or defense will look any different next year?
That’s a great question. You know, we’ve talked about it, and what I’ve decided to do going into these eight weeks (during the summer), is to not really talk with those guys about what our cause is going to be. We had a cause in year one. We didn’t make that decision until August what that was going to be because I wanted to get to know them and I wanted to work with them and I wanted to talk with them, and we’re kind of a little bit in that same learning mode this summer with the nine newcomers.
I think it will be different next summer, because then it’s basically the opposite. A brand new team in year one that you’ve never coached, in year two nine newcomers, and then you might have some additions, but not like the first two years. So there will be a little more carry-over. And that’s what you want.
We came here, and we made the decision as a staff that we’re going to build it the right way. We’re not going to take any shortcuts. We didn’t come to Illinois and say “let’s sell out to everything so we can have this great season”. No, we came to Illinois to build a program.
So class balance and the type of kids we bring in and how we build our culture and all of those things are important. It will be interesting this year. It reminds me of our second year at Ohio. We’re going to rely on some freshmen. We are. They’re going to play. And that’s what they came for. They came for that opportunity. They saw opportunity.
Early on, are they going to be kind of learning on the fly and indoctrination by fire? Yes. They’re probably going to make some mistakes. They’re probably going to get popped in the mouth a few times. That’s OK. You know as well as I do that the best thing about freshmen is that they have the chance to become sophomores.
So then the next year, you have those guys plus some other guys returning plus some guys becoming eligible off transfer, and now you’re starting to gain some momentum and really get the thing where you want it. Sometimes, the baby steps at the beginning are very important as they set you up for success down the line.