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Illini’s emotionally charged John Groce has been there ‘be-four’

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Updated: February 24, 2014 1:23PM



Illinois coach John Groce did some tweeting Wednesday, a rarity for him. Acknowledging the highly charged sideline outburst that got him teed up during a weekend loss to Michigan State, Groce mentioned the “fine line” separating good emotion from bad emotion.

“I need to model that balance better than I did,” he wrote.

Groce happens to be dealing with a four-game losing streak, also a rarity for him. It has happened once before in his coaching career, during the 2009-10 season, his second at Ohio University. The Bobcats nipped that streak in the bud at four and later rose from the ninth seed to win the MAC tournament. That surprising result — along with the shocking 97-83 beatdown of Georgetown that followed in the Big Dance — put a young, bald, fiery, gravelly voiced coach on the map.

Groce will return to another of his former Ohio homes Thursday night. At Ohio State, Groce spent the last four of his eight seasons (at three schools) as an assistant coach under Thad Matta.

Two weeks ago, Matta’s Buckeyes were ranked No. 3 in the country. Now they, too, are slogging through a four-game losing streak — the first one of those for an OSU team in six seasons. Like offensively challenged Illinois, the Buckeyes are learning the hard way what happens when ball and basket don’t get along.

But the comparisons between the 2013-14 Illini and the 2009-10 Bobcats are more relevant.

The Illini likewise are in Year 2 under Groce. Each team entered the season with an overhauled roster and a rotation that, for better or worse, would include at least four freshmen. Each team even wound up being led in scoring by a junior guard who’d sat out the previous season after transferring — Rayvonte Rice for the Illini and ex-Indiana player Armon Bassett for the Bobcats.

“That team was more explosive offensively. This team is more sound defensively than that team,” Groce told the Sun-Times this week. “This is a different team, but I can see the analogy.”

Of course, Ohio, which started 9-9 overall and 0-4 in league play, eventually got things turned all the way around. Are the 13-6 Illini — sinking fast at 2-4 in the Big Ten — capable of saving their season and shaking things up in March?

What really matters is if Groce can see that part of the analogy, too.

“Obviously, we’ll see, but there’s no given,” he said. “That team kept getting better, kept grinding. . . . They played with a chip on their shoulder because others were saying, ‘Wait till next year when the guys will be more experienced.’ At times it didn’t feel great, but they hung in there.

“Do I think this team can do that? Yeah. But you have to do it.”

Major emphasis on that last “do.”

Ohio assistant coach Aaron Fuss was on Groce’s staff four years ago. He believes the most important thing Groce did that season was manage the emotions within the team. There was a lot of “fine line” stuff going on then, too.

“After those four losses, it would’ve been very easy to kind of hang it up,” Fuss said. “John refused to let that happen.”

Tommy Freeman, a deadeye shooter for the Bobcats who ended his career with the most three-point baskets in school history, still can hear the encouraging words hammered home by Groce as the team struggled.

“He said, ‘We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season and going into the conference tournament.’ That was his message the whole season,” recalled Freeman, who was in Champaign last week giving shooting tips to the Illini.

“He would tell us, ‘Just stay the course. Teams are going to have their ups and downs, but come February and March, if we stay the course, we’ll have [a chance].’ ”

Almost exactly four years removed from the first four-game losing streak of his career, Groce admits he wasn’t sure those Bobcats were truly ready for success. He has the same doubts about these Illini, though he also has hope.

It’s another one of those fine lines. And right now, Groce is stepping all over it.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SLGreenberg



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