BY CHAD DARE
Growing up in Danville, Ind., Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce was a fan of the Indiana Hoosiers and coach Bobby Knight.
The first-year coach of the Fighting Illini really didn’t have much of choice.
“My grandmother was a fan and we kind of followed who my grandmother followed,’’ said Groce, who is also a fan of the Chicago Bears and the Cincinnati Reds. “I grew up watching Big Ten basketball and I rooted for Indiana. I remember going to church on Sundays, my grandma would fix fried chicken and I would catch the Bob Knight show at noon.’’
Groce pointed out that where he grew up, he actually watched a lot of games featuring Indiana, Purdue and Illinois.
And tonight, he will have one of the best seats in the house, although he seldom uses it, for tonight’s game between the top-rated Indiana Hoosers (20-2 overall, 8-1 in the Big Ten) and his Fighting Illini (15-8, 2-7) at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
“Obviously, we have a great challenge,’’ Groce said. “They’ve got size. They’ve got depth. They’ve got speed. They’ve got great point guard play. They’ve got drivers. They’ve got shooters. And they play exceptionally hard.’’
All of the things that people would expect from the newest No. 1 team in the nation.
“They are as good of a team as we’ve played all season,’’ said Groce, whose team has played six ranked teams, including top-10 opponents Gonzaga, Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan. “I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge.’’
And quite a turnaround from a team that had just one Big Ten victory in the 2008-09 season, the first for Indiana coach Tom Cream in Bloomington.
“I admire what they have done in a five-year period,’’ said Groce, who was an assistant at Ohio State during the year.
Indiana features a number of challenges in its lineup like 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller or 6-foot guard Jordan Hulls, but the guy that has seemingly made the biggest impact in the Hoosiers team this year is 6-5 junior Victor Oladipo, who is averaging 14.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. And his offensive numbers are only one half of his game.
“I’ve been very impressed with Oladipo defensively,’’ Groce said. “He’s as good as an individual defender as we’ve played against all year.’’
And defense continues to be focus for Groce and the Illini.
“I didn’t like how we graded out between the Michigan State and Wisconsin games,’’ Groce said. “I didn’t like the carry over that we’ve got defensively in the Wisconsin game after making it such an emphasis. Guys have to be more detailed in what they do. We have to have more carry over.
“In this league, if you don’t defend and in particular in the half-court, I think it’s really difficult to be competitive.’’
When asked if he consider changing his defenses from a man-to-man to a zone or to a press, Groce said it didn’t matter.
“You still have to guard the ball,’’ he said. “You still have to keep the ball in front of you, I don’t care what defense you are playing.
“Those are simple, fundamental things that we have to do better.’’
Groce didn’t set a lineup, but did say that it would depend on how the players graded out defensively in the last game and in practices leading to tonight’s game, which can be seen on ESPN. It can also be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.