BY CHAD DARE
Illinois first-year coach John Groce has sought and received a great deal of help in his professional career.
Included in his list of friends and mentors is Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
Today, Groce will get his first chance to matchup against his former boss when the eighth-rated Ohio State Buckeyes come into the Assembly Hall for a 1:15 p.m. contest against the 11th-rated Fighting Illini.
“Obviously, we have a great challenge,” Groce said. “Ohio State is a good basketball team. They are very well coached and they execute well.
“I’m concerned about transition. I’m concerned about (Aaron) Craft, and obviously, Deshaun Thomas is having an All-American type year.”
And how about facing Matta, your boss for eight years, for the first time in your coaching career?
“First and foremost, he is a friend — he and his family,” Groce said of the Hoopeston native. “He has done a lot for me professionally and personally. I’ve said this numerous times, I wouldn’t be standing her with this wonderful opportunity here at the University of Illinois without him.
“He is competitive, and I’m competitive. When that ball tips at 1:15, we are going to be thinking a whole about all of that. We will get after it, just like his club will get after it.”
Groce said that he first met Matta back when he was playing in high school.
“It was 87 or 88,” Groce said. “I was a high school player at Danville (Ind.) and my high school coach was Todd Lickliter, who had coached Thad at Butler.”
Matta added Groce to his coaching staff at Butler for the 2000-01 season and the two remained together for eight years, one at Butler, three at Xavier and four at Ohio State, before Groce got the head coaching job at Ohio University.
“We talked a lot up until getting the job,” Groce said. “We still talk frequently, but it’s more personal in nature. It was personal and professional prior to coming here.”
So, after being together for eight years, does it give either one an advantage?
“At the end of the day, players make plays,” Groce said. “I feel like we put our guys in position to be successful.”
Matta, just like Groce, downplayed the matchup with his former assistant.
“We’re familiar with each other,” said Matta, who has coached against numerous friends and colleagues during his 13-year career.
But during last year’s NCAA Tournament, Matta said that Groce defines intensity in an article published in the New York Times.
“He had an ability to go 100 miles an hour all the time,” Matta was quoted as saying. “He can walk out in the rain and doesn’t need an umbrella.”
And that intensity is something that Groce wants to see more from his team, especially when it comes to making toughness plays.
“We want to play with passion. We have played with passion at times this year,” Groce said. “I want them to have fun, but I will define fun.
“Fun is diving on loose balls, Fun is taking charges. Fun is executing and screening someone to get a teammate a shot. Fun is sharing the ball. Fun is competing with toughness and togetherness. If you don’t do those things, it’s not fun.”
In the Big Ten opener at Purdue on Wednesday, Illinois failed in a couple situations to compete with toughness and that has been addressed in practices on Thursday and Friday.
Groce said that Thursday’s practice wasn’t for the “meek or timid.”
“It was a battle,” Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul said. “We did a lot of toughness drills – rebounding and things we need to get better.
“We are competing in practice, we need to make sure we do it in games. We let (Purdue) outtough us. It’s a matter of will, we have to want it more.”
And things are not going to get any easier for Illinois (13-2 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) with Ohio State (11-2, 1-0) coming to town.
“In this league you play 18 games, they are coming at your ever two or three days,” Groce said. “You don’t have time to celebrate or lick your wounds. You can’t do that. You have to focus on the process of getting better every day.”
Ohio State presents numerous challenges for Illinois, including junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who is averaging 19.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
“He is a load,” Groce said. “He can get you inside and out. He can get you on the glass. He can post you. He can drive, it, and shoot it. He is a very, very versatile offensive player and that makes him such a threat.”
And who is going to guard Thomas? Groce declined to answer.
But the 6-foot-7 forward from Fort Wayne, Ind., who was a teammate of Danville Area Community College standout Evan Blackmon, isn’t the only challenge for the Illini.
The Buckeyes also feature 6-foot-2 junior guard Aaron Craft, who averages 8.3 points and 5.0 assists per game. But Groce called him the “heart and soul” of the Ohio State team and compared his contributions to that of Purdue’s D.J. Byrd, who just led his Boilermakers past the Illini on Wednesday.
“I really admire the way those guys play the game,” Groce said. “They play it with passion. They play it with toughness. Both guys are winners.”
A year ago, Illinois split its two conference games against Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in Columbus, Ohio, while the Illini pulled off the upset in Champaign behind a career-best 43 points from Paul.
In that game a year ago at the Assembly Hall, Paul was virtually unstoppable making 11-of-15 shots, including 8-of-10 behind the 3-point arc.
And how does the senior from Gurnee remember that game?
“I think my first shot was an airball,” he said. “I was just confident in my game that night. I was hitting everything.”
And when Paul saw coach Matta at the Big Ten media days in October?
“I said I was looking forward to seeing you guys,” Paul said. “And he said, ‘I’m not looking forward to seeing you.’
“He is a great coach and he always has his team ready to go. I’m looking forward to this matchup.”
Today’s game can be seen on the Big Ten Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.