CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - If there was a moment that got John Groce to Illinois, it might have been the instant when the buzzer sounded and Ohio upset Michigan in the NCAA Tournament.
While everything around him in Nashville was chaos and the shrieks of the students on Court Street back in Athens, Ohio, overwhelmed the microphones on the cameras and phones they held high to capture the moment, Bobcats guard D.J. Cooper got to his teammates and put a lid on what was about to happen.
“Cooper grabbed the guys and said, ‘Act like you’ve been there before.’ He didn’t want any celebration,’’ Groce said. “Immediately. Because he knew.’’
Knew that if the 13th-seed Bobcats did the natural thing and went wild after the 65-60 win over Michigan, they’d be acknowledging they weren’t supposed to win. And might not win again. The Bobcats, the coach said, controlled themselves, won another game, and eventually took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16 because of one quality.
“Those kids were so tough mentally,’’ Groce said from his new office at Illinois, where he is taking over for the fired Bruce Weber. “Coming back from deficits, not tying our effort on the defensive end to whether shots were going in on the offensive end, staying together, being unflappable.’’
If you asked Weber, fired after Illinois finished 17-15 following a 15-3 start, what one trait his team could have used, that same kind of toughness would be it.
Groce says he wants to build that sort of culture: “Toughness and leadership in that area, of having a mentally tough guy to help the team, that’s invaluable.’’
Illinois pursued bigger-name coaches - Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens among them - before courting the 40-year-old Groce, who takes over under less-than-ideal circumstances.
The team, which finished ninth in the 12-school Big Ten this season, is losing its best player, 7-foot-1-inch center Meyers Leonard, for the NBA draft. And Groce will have to recruit in Chicago, where a number of high school and AAU coaches have already insisted they don’t know him.
None of that, he says, bothers him.
“I can’t really get caught up in it,’’ he said. “I tell the players all the time, control the controllables.’’
What Groce really wants to talk about are math, statistics, and swine.
He has pointed out that the house where he grew up in Danville, Ind., just outside Indianapolis, is 107 miles from Illinois. And he’s come clean on growing up a Hoosier - a dirty word in the parts of Illinois where Illini basketball matters - and marrying one. His wife, Allison, is an Indiana grad.
What he hasn’t talked much about is his time in 4H.
“You know, I used to show hogs - not a lot of people know that about me,’’ he said with a grin, quickly shifting to the language of swine production. “I showed a gilt [a female who’s never had a litter] named Tootsie. She was reserve grand champion.’’
Groce eventually gave up pigs for basketball - he says he knew by 12 that he wanted to coach.
Just out of college at an NAIA school, Taylor University in Upland, Ind., he took a job as a high school math teacher and part-time coach.
The math stuck with him. He uses numbers from Ken Pomeroy, the University of Utah instructor whose basketball stats and analysis are gospel to Internet hoops fans. And Groce’s managers know to track virtually every on-court move a player makes.
“I’ve got all the numbers from yesterday on what we shot, who made what,’’ Groce said a day after his first workout with the team. “Today, I’m going to give the individual kids those numbers and I’m going to say let’s see if we can attack this, let’s get a little bit better today and compete against ourselves.’’
A few hours later in the team’s practice gym, Groce called frequently on managers armed with clipboards as he worked his way from player to player during a shooting drill.
“What did Joseph make yesterday?’’ he yelled, striding toward sophomore forward Joseph Bertrand, one of the few upperclassmen on the roster. After the manager’s answer, Groce challenged Bertrand to improve just a bit. “Joseph, you’re trying to beat 27.’’
The drills at this point are simple, at least partly designed to give Groce an idea of what he has. But they also give the players a chance to learn a little about him.
In practice and elsewhere, Groce is a walking exclamation - chopping, punching, and stabbing the air around him with quick hand gestures, and doing much the same with the sound effects he uses for emphasis.
“I want you hammering that ball into the wood,’’ he yells to players about to start dribbling up court with two balls, one in each hand. “Boom, boom, boom.’’
It’s early, but his talk of attack - a word he uses a lot - is what many of his players want to hear.
“That’s how I’m used to playing,’’ said guard D.J. Richardson, a junior who said he’d spent a little time watching Ohio to get an idea of what to expect. “They like to get out and run.’’
But fans hoping for a replay of the fastest moments of the 1989 Flyin’ Illini, the up-tempo team Weber’s squads were often unfavorably compared to, might want to temper that hope. Groce, sounding a bit like Weber, says his teams must be able to grind out wins, too, sometimes with a methodic half-court game and - he says it again - toughness, like his Bobcats.
“I think a great example of that, the Carolina game where we got stung early and got down 15,’’ he said. “And those kids just kept fighting and fighting and fighting - and got themselves back in the game.
“And that’s the type of mentality that we want to have here, that fight, that being able to grind it. Sometimes it’s not pretty.’’