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October 13, 2013

John Groce welcomes coaches


The Fighting Illini men's basketball squad welcomed over 130 coaches from high schools and college around the Midwest as John Groce was able to showcase his program and his philosophies to them over a two day period.

The coaches watched three Illinois practices and got to hear from Groce as well as guest speakers in NBA coach of the Year George Karl and former Iowa head coach Todd Lickliter, who is currently the coach at Marian University in Indianapolis.

Here's a recap of the event.

Practice matters at Illinois

Practice matters at Illinois, as Groce is continually looking at numbers. Rebounding jerseys are awarded to the player who grabs the most rebounds in live action, standouts (Aaron Cosby with 0 turnovers and 6 assists on Friday) are lauded as they stretch after practice, and every play is detailed and scored for player grading. The math teacher in Groce comes out.

The most impressive thing about Groce's practices is the pace. Everyone notes it while watching, and this is even with Groce stopping to explain drills here and there for the crowd in attendance. With that in mind, each player wears a heart rate monitor. This way they know who is pushing themselves and who is not. As Groce said, 'The numbers don't lie.' Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams were praised by Groce for their effort.

Showing leadership

Friday was a rough day for Tracy Abrams - he threw some passes where he looked like Eli Manning facing a blitz this season. The coaches in attendance had a better chance at catching them. However, when Malcolm Hill made an error and it cost his team a drill, Abrams was right there to pick him up. Instead of pouting about his own play, he picked up the freshman and showed him that the most important play was the next play. That's leadership.

Speaking Groce

What was supposed to be an hour long presentation by John Groce turned into a longer process for the high energy coach. Rarely did he stop to come up for air, as he used the Illinois Wesleyan basketball players to showcase the drills that have made him so successful as a head coach. A couple of things stood out, besides the energy and passion, of course.

Although he didn't name them, Groce mentioned how one Big Ten team limited the Illini's three-point attempts and another Big Ten opponent decided to force them to shoot a low percentage. The results showed option 1 was much more effective, and Groce is now using these type of advanced statistics to further his program. If a team shoots the three pointer well, don't allow them to get these shots off because the defense of the three pointer is somewhat random.

Rebounding is another area of emphasis for Illinois. Groce talked about not just blocking out, but punishing their opponent to not allow offensive rebounds and second chance points. Groce emphasized defensive rebounding percentages, not just winning rebounding battles on paper. It just shows the way advanced metrics have entered the game of basketball and are becoming more and more mainstream.

Speaker connections

The two speakers from Saturday are well known in the basketball world; NBA Coach of the Year George Karl and Marian College coach Todd Lickliter. Lickliter has an obvious connection to Groce, as his former high school coach. The former Iowa and Butler head coach has been at all levels of high school and college basketball, and provided some great insight into John Groce and basketball in general.

Karl hasn't spent a great deal of time watching the college game, but he told me that he is speaking at about 12 events around the country this fall. Karl said the NBA is a much different game - they watch two films a day for an 82 game season, and spend the majority of their time on game prep. He did offer some thoughts on Illinois. Karl said he didn't really have a connection with Groce, but Groce contacted him through Herb Sendek, who is from the same town as Karl and knows Groce well.

"They are really athletic, and I was impressed with their length, especially up front," Karl said. "They've got a few guys that can really shoot the ball as well."

Of course, some of those shooters included transfers who are sitting out such as Ahmad Starks, Darius Paul and Aaron Cosby.

The VIP section

Former Illinois great and all-time leading scorer Deon Thomas is now the head coach at Lewis and Clark in Godfrey (Ill.), but he found the time to get back to Champaign and check in on the Illini program.

"It's always great to be back here," Thomas said. "The university, from Coach Weber to Coach Groce and everyone has been amazing at welcoming us back and making us feel great about Illinois. And I'm always trying to pick up a few pointers and learn some tricks."

Thomas spoke to Groce about the open assistant coaching position last year and although he didn't have the experience Groce was looking for, he's definitely on the radar for the future. We'll have a full interview with Thomas this week.

Also in attendance was former Groce player Walter Offutt. Offutt originally committed to Groce at Ohio State, then followed him to Ohio later and led the team to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Now entering the coaching ranks at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, he is hoping to eventually be a part of a college program.

"I'm part of the Illinois family now that Coach Groce is here," Offutt said. "He's going to do great things here at Illinois and I'd love to be a part of it someday."


* So which player is grading out the highest thus far on the charts? Senior Jon Ekey, of course. Surprised? It's a bit surprising, but Ekey knows how to play and understands getting open and creating space, while also being in the right position on defense.

* The key to on the ball defense for John Groce is toughness. Having quick feet is great, but using your hands and forcing players out of the comfort zone is something you can control, while foot quickness isn't. The key to team defense? Positioning and being in the right spot on the floor.

* Groce welcomed the coaches to his house on Friday night for a coaches' social hour where they could meet and greet the Illini staff.

* Watched Ahmad Starks go through an individual workout with Illini assistant Jamall Walker, and he can really shoot the ball. Starks hit 35 of his first 40 3 pointers at the end of his workout in a 2-minute shooting drill. He's also been lighting it up in live action, hitting 6 of 7 on Thursday and at least 4 more on Friday.

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