There’s no arguing that Illinois is one of the most intriguing college basketball teams of the first half of the season. The team lost 12 of its last 14 games last year, finishing 17-15 and watching coach Bruce Weber get the ax. In came John Groce from Ohio and all of a sudden, the Illini are off to a 12-0 start this year with a road victory over Gonzaga and a championship at the Maui Invitational. Illinois puts its unblemished record on the line Saturday against rival Mizzou.
John Groce joined WSCR in Chicago with Mully and Hanley to discuss exceeding expectations to start his tenure at Illinois, the system that he uses, the Illini’s energized fan base, getting ready for Big Ten play and living and dying by the jump shot.
On exceeding expectations by guiding Illinois to a 12-0 start in his first year:
“I think a lot of the credit obviously goes to our players. Those guys have done a great job; they bought in from the very beginning. They had a great spring, great summer, great fall, and now they’re starting to reap the dividends from all their hard work. Their attitude’s been really good. I think they’ve played with a lot of toughness, especially mentally. We’ve had great poise and composure on the road. … It makes it fun to coach them every day, quite honestly.”
How do you keep your system free-flowing and player-friendly, yet still have structure?:
“We want to be aggressive and we want to attack 94 feet, and the faster we can play, the better. The kids enjoy playing that way. One of the things that we’ve tried to do is put our players in position to give them some space and let them make plays. … But there is a balance, for sure. For us, we want to take the first available shot that we can make, other than, obviously, time and score situations, whether you’re ending a half or ending a game. … Our guys have really, really adapted well; they like the way that we play.”
On the fan base being energized:
“I think we do have an energized fan base right now. It’s exciting; I’m happy for them. I’m happy for our players, most importantly, because they’ve been through a lot.”
You’re off to a hot start, but the Big Ten season is looming. The conference seems loaded:
“It’s unbelievable. It’s as deep as I’ve seen, and I’ve watched it since I was a youngster. Obviously, I was in the league ’04-’08 at Ohio State. There’s been some great teams … over the last decade … but the depth of the league right now is amazing. What’s going to happen is it’s going to get to January … and everybody’s going to beat the heck out of one another. It’s a great league. Last year, we finished No. 1 in the RPI. Right now we’re No. 1 in the RPI. And just the depth of the league, I think, is what strikes you when you look at it.”
On living and dying by the jump shot:
“There’s no question. Obviously we don’t want to do that. We’ve got to have — I’ve said all along now for a couple weeks — some kind of rim game or paint game. One of the reasons I felt like we beat Gonzaga is we drove the heck out of it and got the ball to the paint. We’ve got to do that. You can really do it one of two ways, you can post it and/or drive it. … Right now, the four perimeters that we’re playing are really efficient. Getting them to drive more is really important. … We do play at a great pace, but we’ve always put our most gifted offensive players in a position to be successful.”