Illinois coach John Groce making good on his inheritance
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com December 15, 2012 12:30AM
Illinois head coach John Groce shouts out instructions to his team while playing Butler in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Maui Invitational, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:43AM
We’ve seen this before at Illinois.
Lon Kruger took Lou Henson’s recruits and won NCAA tournament games his first two seasons, plus a Big Ten title in his second season. With Kruger’s players, Bill Self won two Big Ten titles and reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in his first two years.
Bruce Weber stepped in and Illinois won two straight Big Ten titles, going on to a Sweet 16 and an NCAA title game.
Nobody’s suggesting John Groce will reach those kinds of early heights. And yet there’s no denying that with Illinois ranked 10th in the nation, thanks to an 11-0 record that includes the Maui Invitational title, Groce is off to a great start. Illinois will try to add its 12th win on Sunday against Eastern Kentucky.
Every case is different. But there are some common threads. All four — Kruger, Self, Weber and Groce —are accomplished coaches who know how they want to play and know how to teach and connect. All four benefitted from having motivated veterans.
Illinois’ new coaches also have had players suited to what they like to do. Self inherited Marcus Griffin and Brian Cook, agile big men suited to his high-low game. Weber took the reins with gifted guards Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown, who were perfect for his motion offense.
Groce inherited a roster led by Brandon Paul that has embraced the attacking pick-and-roll he brought in from Ohio University.
‘‘It’s a very pro-influenced offense,’’ said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy, who also is a Big Ten Network analyst. ‘‘It’s obviously an offense that suits Brandon Paul, who’s a very talented player. He’s not a great shooter, but if he’s playing with confidence, he’s going to shoot it better. And I think you’re seeing that.’’
Paul isn’t the only one who’s benefitting. Tracy Abrams is a better scorer in this active offense. So is Tyler Griffey, who’s getting open, spot-up looks. D.J. Richardson, who’s putting the ball on the floor more, is a better all-around threat.
‘‘A motion offense doesn’t want you to put the ball down and beat your man,’’ DeCourcy said. ‘‘With Brandon, [motion] didn’t really add up. Tracy’s not a great shooter, either. So you have to run all your motion for one guy [usually Richardson].’’
Groce’s offense has choices that fit Illinois’ personnel better. Set a pick for Paul in Groce’s offense, and he can keep the ball, toss it to a rolling Nnanna Egwu or find Richardson on the wing or Griffey in the corner.
For Weber, the dilemma was he felt obligated to take higher-rated recruits who weren’t always good fits for his motion offense.
Another big key to Groce’s early success is that he, like his predecessors, has connected with his roster. A new voice often resonates.
‘‘Coach Groce is an amazing coach,’’ Paul said. ‘‘We want to play hard for him.’’
Groce has talked about how lucky he is to have a mature roster that’s dedicated to getting better. He also is a staunch public defender of his players.
‘‘John’s done a really great job of installing,’’ DeCourcy said. ‘‘But I also think the best coaches have the most eager students. These guys were ready for this. Because he came in with a system they were excited to learn, it has made the situation even better.’’
All in all, it’s looking like a good fit in Champaign. Again.