Media swingputs new Illini coaches, AD in front of media, boosters.
Illinois basketball coach John Groce entered his second Monday on the job with a cup of coffee headed to the airport and a two-city media swing. A selection for the job who attracted some skepticism -- especially from Chicago -- Groce flew a corporate jet to meet with boosters and media in St. Louis and Chicago with women's basketball coach Matt Bollant and athletics director Mike Thomas. "I didn't read those newspapers, especially during that deal,'' Groce said of the coaching search. "My whole focus what on getting to know the people involved in the process. Did I believe in them, the opportunity at the University of Illinois and what's best for my family. "You'll hear me say all the time, 'Control the controllables.' If we get caught up in the officiating, our shots going in, expectations and newspaper articles, you're not going to be very successful.'' So Groce had a simple gameplan. "I'll be myself in what we do and how we do things,'' he said. "Hopefully, that's enough.'' Otherwise, Groce hit a few topics as his Illini program continued to take shape. -- Completing his staff. On Monday, Illinois officially announced the hiring of former Ohio assistants Jamall Walker and Dustin Ford, but Groce wasn't ready to fill the final full-time assistant coaching slot. "I'm about ready to move on that in a day or two,'' Groce said. "I wanted to take time and think about how I wanted the staff to complement one another. I want guys to make me better, make us better. I want guys that have different strengths and different areas.'' Groce said the position is "coveted,'' and he still considered Illinois interim coach Jerrance Howard, the recruiting ace under former coach Bruce Weber. Groce said he spoke with Deon Thomas, the Lewis and Clark Community College coach who is the Illini's all-time leading scorer. There is a desire among some well-placed boosters to have a strong Illini connection in the coaching staff. It would appear a longshot Howard lands a spot on Groce's staff this late in the process. Would Thomas be a fit? Ford is already Groce's big man coach. Walker is a Saint Louis graduate and serves as Groce's conduit to the St. Louis recruiting market. -- Playing style. The idea of playing uptempo drew an applause during his introductory press conference in late March, and Groce said his teams "played with great pace and tempo in everything, not just full court but also in the half court,'' he said. On defense, "we sprinkle some zone,'' he said. "I'm not a huge zone guy. You need to be able to switch up in the course of a game.'' A zone won Ohio the MAC Tournament championship in 2010, Groce said, and he learned elements of a press from facing Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament that same season. "If you're not adaptable, it makes it difficult in any postseason tournament to advance,'' he said. -- Relationship building. As important as any improvements in individual workouts this spring, Groce took the first steps in building a bond between himself and the roster by meeting with every player. Part of building the trust between the coaches and the personnel is getting to know each other, he said. "I'm not expecting them after the first 20- to 25-minute meeting to say, 'Man, I trust that guy with every fiber in my body,' '' Groce said. "Life doesn't work that way. "Personally, as a student and as a player, we're consumed with their development. Those kids would tell you that so far through the first 10 days. It's a two-way street. The only thing I asked them to do is to be open minded.'' -- Recruiting. With sophomore center Meyers Leonard headed to the NBA, the Illini have two scholarships open. Groce was searching for depth at point guard and center. "I'm not going to fill a roster spot just to fill a roster spot,'' Groce said. "I don't want to patch the dam or Band-Aid something. That's not what we're trying to do. (Scholarships) are like gold.'' John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.