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Despite ‘hat fake,’ Illini coach John Groce stays course in Chicago

Illinois Coach John Groce signals from sidelines during second half an NCAA college basketball game between IPFW Illinois State Farm

Illinois Coach John Groce signals from the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between IPFW and Illinois at State Farm Center in Champaign, IL. Illinois won 57-55. (AP Photo/Heather Coit)

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Updated: December 4, 2013 11:54AM



ATLANTA — One day before Illinois’ highest-profile game of the young season, against Georgia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, John Groce sat in his Champaign office and relived the afternoon of Nov. 15.

Frankly, there isn’t a whole lot to the story.

In case you’ve wondered, Groce wasn’t on the edge of his seat as Curie big man Cliff Alexander did his rather controversial hat dance on ESPNU. For the Illini’s hard-charging second-year coach, there was no jubilation-turned-devastation as Alexander picked up an Illinois cap during his announcement on national signing day, only to set it down and don a Kansas one instead.

Believe it or not, Groce wasn’t even glued to a television as Alexander ruined a day Illini fans had dubbed ‘‘Cliffmas.’’ If you were, well, that means you knew before Groce, who was on the practice court at the Ubben Basketball Complex leading his team in a drill.

One and done? Try none and oh, well.

‘‘I haven’t even watched it, still to this day,’’ Groce said. ‘‘People have obviously talked about it, but that stuff is in the past. You can’t control that, can’t change it. It’s like a call in a game.’’

Groce was so crushed by the news, which assistant coach Jamall Walker emerged from the trainers’ room to tell him, that practice never even stopped. Groce didn’t bother to tell his players, who had no reason to sense anything was wrong.

Which is not to say it didn’t hurt a little.

‘‘I try not to do anything in my life without doing it with passion, whether it’s coach, recruit, care for our players,” he said. “You invest your heart, soul and mind in something — to the full extent, without being lukewarm — then obviously it’s going to be disappointing when you have a setback.’’

But here’s why Groce is so good for the present and future of Illinois basketball:

‘‘At that point,’’ he said, ‘‘the world’s not stopping. Our program’s not stopping. We’re trying to win the war, not the battle.

‘‘I fight. I’ve never been a guy that flies away from challenges.’’

You see what we mean? The guy can handle a setback. His motto: ‘‘Learn and move.’’ In the short time that has passed since losing Alexander, Groce and his coaches have been right back up in Chicago trying to get home-run recruiting right.

The afternoon after signing day, Groce held a news conference on campus to announce the next class of players — but not before he delivered a well-played shot or two to the Sun-Times for splashing Alexander on the back cover as part of a story that was not exactly Illinois-friendly.

In a loud, commanding voice, Groce stood up for his program. It was the right thing to do.

That day, it was mostly for the school’s fan base. But what is his message for Chicago?

‘‘We’ve already been up there again, and we’re going to keep going up there,’’ he said. ‘‘We don’t back down. That’s not what we do.

‘‘And we’re already better than we were when we got here in a lot of areas. We’re going to continue to make that climb. With the guys we have in our program now and the guys who are coming in, we’re going to be in that realm, or that ballpark, where we can do some special things.’’

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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