John Groce says he loses weight during the course of a basketball season and it’s easy to see why.
Illinois’ head coach exercises a combination of yoga, Pilates and his mouth on the sideline during the course of every Fighting Illini game.
“I lose 10 pounds every year,” Groce said when asked how much he might lose during any given game. “Ration that out.”
Thursday it was exhausting to follow Groce during Illinois’ 51-49 victory over Minnesota in the United Center.
Television doesn’t do Groce justice. You have to stay with him for a few minutes at a time to appreciate his perpetual motion.
Groce does a lot of clapping. He high-fives his players. He chats with assistants. He gyrates from here to there and back again.
That, by the way, is during warm-ups.
Once the game starts, Groce is like a traffic cop at a busy intersection or a chess player moving pieces around a board.
Groce barks instructions. He tries to body English shots to where he wants them to go. He advises game officials on the use of their whistles. He crouches down in a defensive stance. He lifts his arms as if to rebound.
The man appears to be possessed by intensity. He coaches the Illini with a clenched jaw rather than clenched fists.
“The biggest thing is just trying to be positive with them, ” Groce explained. “Just trying to give them energy.”
As the Big Ten’s youngest basketball coach, Groce has plenty of energy. Still, sometimes the temptation is to whisper in his ear, “Stifle all the animation, coach, and let the players play.”
The temptation passes when you realize that maybe Groce’s way is OK. Maybe his style is what college athletes need to play their best.
After consecutive Illinois turnovers against Minnesota, Groce put his head in his hands, caught himself and quickly clapped encouragement to the Illini.
What I like — and this is just me noticing something small — is Groce will pat a player on the butt as he comes out of the game.
Why is that impressive? Because so many college coaches barely glance when the player walks past, as if the coach is too mesmerized by his own mental machinations to notice.
Groce can multi-task. He can coach the game and coach his players and coach their basketball behavior and coach their emotion state ... all at once.
At least Groce has looked like he can do all that in his first season in Champaign. The results include a 22-11 record and an anticipated invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
When Illinois was reeling early in the Big Ten season, Groce’s hand steadied them. When the Illini were reeling during much of second half against Minnesota, his manner rallied them.
“When he has that kind of passion,” Illinois forward/center Nnanna Egwu said of Groce, “you want to play as hard as he is coaching.”
Whether Groce’s way can be sustainable and successful long-term depends on whether he recruits players good enough to make the plays he’s encouraging them to make.
All we can go by right now is that in the final seconds Thursday, Egwu fought for a big man’s rebound, D.J. Richardson made a 3-point basket after going 1 for 7, and Brandon Paul made a game-winning jump shot at the buzzer.
Those were confident plays made by confident players reflecting their coach’s confidence in them.
Albeit a coach a little lighter than he was when the game started.
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