Inside College Hoops: Illini coach John Groce enduring hard offseason

(Gary Parrish’s INSIDE COLLEGE HOOPS column publishes each Friday taking a look at college basketballl’s relevant topics and interesting notes from around the nation.)

John Groce returned from France late Wednesday, then woke up early Thursday with his wife, Allison, so that they could take their son to his first day of kindergarten.

Naturally, they had the radio on during the drive.

A Tupac song came on.

Keep Ya Head Up,” Groce told me Thursday. “My wife said, ‘This should be your theme song.”

To be clear, Groce said this with a laugh.

So he’s in good spirits.

But, obviously, it’s been a tough past month for the Illinois coach.

First, Groce lost point guard Tracy Abrams to a season-ending injury in the preseason for the second straight season. Then, this past weekend, he had to suspend Darius Paul indefinitely after the 6-foot-8 forward was arrested while Illinois was on its trip to France.

Paul’s future with the program is now unclear. But what is clear is how different the past year has been relative to Groce’s first six years as a head coach, four of which were spent at Ohio.

Ohio’s Steven Coleman was limited to 10 games in the 2009-10 season.

Illinois’ Joseph Bertrand missed one game with an injury in the 2012-13 season.

“But, other than those two guys, I never really had a player miss a game in my first [six] years as a head coach,” Groce said. “Not a single game. Then, all of a sudden, we’re getting pounded by injuries and things you can’t control. It’s a wild deal.”

Indeed it is.

The hope is that the recent addition of former La Salle standout Khalid Lewis will help ease the loss of Abrams, and Groce genuinely believes it will. But there’s still no denying it’s less-than-ideal to be dealing with these issues entering your fourth year at a school, especially when you’ve missed the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons.

“It is what it is,” Groce said Thursday night. “But, yeah, it can be frustrating. It’s crazy.”

NOTES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY

KENTUCKY WILDCATS Freshman Murray can’t play for Team Canada
Jamal Murray was not named to the team that will represent Canada at the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics because doing so would’ve complicated his enrollment and jeopardized his eligibility at Kentucky.

That’s official now.

Murray, a five-star combo guard, helped Canada to a silver medal in the Pan American Games last month while looking every bit like a future lottery pick of the NBA Draft. But classes start at Kentucky on Wednesday. And the qualifying tournament runs through Sept. 12 in Mexico. So Canada, unfortunately, will have to compete without its young star.

NC STATE WOLFPACK Gottfried brings in Herren to talk to team
The month of August is a slow month for college basketball players — save for restarting classes and stuff. So there’s free time to do things. And that’s among the reasons N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried invited Chris Herren to campus to speak to his team.

Surely you know Herren’s story by now.

McDonald’s All-American. Enrolled at Boston College. Failed drug tests for cocaine and marijuana. Played at Boston College. Failed more drug tests. Got expelled. Enrolled at Fresno State. Scored a bunch. Failed another drug test. Entered the NBA Draft. Played for the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics and several international teams. Kept using. Overdosed on heroin. Crashed a car. Almost died. And it really was one of the saddest basketball stories ever.

But Herren has turned it into a positive story.

He completed multiple rehab programs and has reportedly been clean for seven years.

He now regularly speaks to young players.

He spoke to N.C. State’s players earlier this week.

“He was excellent,” Gottfried told me Thursday by phone.

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN LUMBERJACKS Recent success making it harder to find teams to play SFA
The great thing about starting your head-coaching career with a 61-8 record is that you get raises and extensions. The bad thing is that nobody is anxious to play you, which has made scheduling difficult bordering on impossible for Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood.

It’s late August.

And he still needs two more non-league games!

Underwood told me Thursday he recently added two previously unreported games — one at Arizona State, another at UAB — but that he still needs a couple more. Right now, Stephen F. Austin only has one home non-league game scheduled. That’s against Texas Southern.

“We may fill-in with non-Division I teams,” Underwood said. “We need home games bad.”

SMU MUSTANGS Player’s literacy foundation making a difference
SMU junior Jonathan Wilfong, along with a friend named Andrew Renshaw, started a non-profit foundation called Coaching for Literacy when they were high school students back in 2013. Their goal was to use sports to raise awareness for illiteracy. And it’s amazing how much the foundation has grown in the past three years.

Last year alone, Coaching for Literacy — with the help of college coaches like Vanderbilt‘s Kevin Stallings, MemphisJosh Pastner, Yale‘s James Jones, etc., — raised enough money to support more than 150 literacy instuctors and 3,000 students, and it raised the money primarily by getting coaches to agree to auction off special access for fans to various games. Meantime, Coaching for Literacy now also has an office. And a staff. And just this week Wilfong convinced his college coach, Larry Brown, to officially join its advisory board.

“So many kids that play … are challenged academically,” Brown said. “If you can read, you can be successful, and Jonathan is going to have an impact far beyond what he believes.”

The goal this year, I’m told, is to auction off access to 25 different events.

Wilfong thinks they can raise an additional $400,000.

Again, he’s just a college junior.

That’s impressive.

OLE MISS REBELS Perez stars for Venezuela in wins vs. Iowa State, USF
Unless you really follow college basketball, specifically Ole Miss, then you’re probably unfamiliar with Anthony Perez— a 6-foot-9 forward who averaged just 2.6 points per game last season for the Rebels. But he might be positioned for a breakthrough season.

Perez is from Venezuela, you see.

And he just averaged 24.5 points for the Venezuelan national team in a pair of exhibition-wins in Spain against Iowa State and South Florida. He got 26 points in the win over USF, then scored 23 in the victory over an ISU team that’ll start the season nationally ranked.

“It had to be good for his confidence heading into his senior year,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy told me by phone. “We need him to be a consistent contributor.”

Meanwhile, Ole Miss standout Stefan Moody is back in the gym and on the court.

He had surgery in June to repair a stress fracture in his left leg.

He posted the following on Instagram Thursday …

FINAL THOUGHT

The recent story from the NFL about IK Enemkpali slugging Geno Smith reminded me of the time I had to cover a similar event as a beat writer.

It was January 2005.

I was working at The Commercial Appeal, covering a Memphis team that began the season ranked No. 24 nationally but had stumbled to a 7-6 start featuring losses to unranked Louisiana Tech, unranked Ole Miss and unranked Providence. Sean Banks, coming off a terrific freshmen year, had been a huge pain in the ass of John Calipari, who was then the coach of the Tigers.

Banks had returned to campus for the fall semester at what amounted to the last possible minute. He was out of shape after no-showing for USA Basketball workouts in the summer. In short, everybody hated him.

So now the Tigers were playing at Texas.

National television.

And Banks and Arthur Barclay, the respected team captain, were jawing back and forth on the court when Banks said something that clearly crossed the so-called line. P.J. Tucker, a star at Texas at the time, heard every word.

“And P.J. Tucker is a friend of mine,” Barclay told me by phone recently when I asked him to retell the story. “He said, ‘You’re gonna let him talk to you like that?’ So I told Sean, ‘I got you after the game.'”

“You ain’t gonna do nothing,” Banks replied, according to Barclay.

Predictably, Memphis went on to lose the game 74-67.

The players quickly went to the locker room.

“And I walked straight to Sean,” Barclay said. “Coach Cal kinda turned his head.”

And then Barclay smashed Banks straight in the face.

“Yeah, it was good,” Barclay said when I asked if he landed a solid punch. “It was good.”

Banks suffered a big black eye.

I saw it up close at the airport in Austin.

Barclay and Banks returned to Memphis on separate planes — Banks with assistant Ed Schilling and the rest of the team on a commercial flight, Barclay with Calipari and assistants Tony Barbee and Derek Kellogg on a private flight. The following day, Barclay said he walked into the Finch Center on campus and, suddenly, found himself alone with Banks in the locker room.

“And he had a big bucket of chicken,” Barclay remembered. “He said, ‘You want some chicken?’ And I said, ‘Hell yeah.’ And then we ended up talking. And, to his credit, he apologized. I always liked that he was man enough to do that.”

John Groce (USATSI)
Illinois coach John Groce led the Illini to a 19-14 record last season. (USATSI)

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