Anyone who followed the Bruce Weber coaching tenure at the University of Illinois will recall a familiar source of fan unrest:

“Why is Weber too stubborn to play zone defense?”

Weber was a strict man-to-man defensive coach and believed that if you practice it all the time and make it a way of life in your basketball program, it would give a team the best chance to win. You can say he was stubborn, but I believe he simply felt man-to-man was the better defensive philosophy. I think he viewed zone as a shortcut.

John Groce is also a coach who believes man-to-man should be his team’s primary defense. But he also believes there are times and circumstances when switching to a zone makes sense and he has no problem calling the zone his secondary defense.

Last time out, against Georgia Tech, Illinois played quite a bit of zone late in that game, a game Illinois won 75-62.

On Monday, as Illinois prepares to host Western Carolina Tuesday night, Groce confirmed that Illinois stayed in its zone for 19 possessions in that game, or about 25 percent (maybe more) of the game.

Best of all, he liked what he saw and although he wouldn’t say where or when, he said fans can expect to see more zone in the future.

“It was good,” he said of Illinois’ proficiency in the zone. “It charted out well. We knew we were going to play it some during the game, but I didn’t know we would play it that much.

“It was more of a feel thing, but it was pretty effective during the game and as we continued to chart it, we stayed with it.”

Groce doesn’t like to give out a lot of details, but he reluctantly agreed we can call it a 2-3 zone.

“It’s something we practice,” he said. “That’s our secondary defense. When we feel we can utilize it to be competitive or if it’s a good strategy, we’ll certainly use it.”

Shortly after Groce was hired, he said he liked to use zone as a changeup and said he had won games because of the zone’s effectiveness while at Ohio University.

I don’t know if people really care, or if Weber’s perceived stubbornness made more people seem to care, but whenever Illinois would struggle, I’d invariably hear from fans who would blame a loss on Weber’s unwillingness to occasionally switch to a zone defense.

Well, for those fans, John Groce is your man!

Illinois climbed to No. 13 in the Associated Press national rankings Monday and if the Western Carolina game goes as planned, Illinois will be 9-0 when it heads to Spokane, Wash., to play unbeaten and 10th-ranked Gonzaga at 9 p.m., Saturday. The Gonzaga game will be televised on ESPN2.

The Western Carolina game, which tips at 7 p.m., Tuesday, will not be seen on live TV. It can be viewed at and will be rebroadcast at 12:30 p.m. (Central) Wednesday on the Big Ten Network.

(4) comments


John Groce is a breath of fresh air. Especially love the way he "teaches" during games giving them a high five or a pat on the back and instructing them about mistakes or even the things they did right... I always hated that Weber would never even look at or acknowledge players as they came out of a game... John Groce is just what the doctor ordered for this program. GO ILLINI!


Pete - did you go to either of the big shootouts this past weekend? no time for me so I had to just read about them on various msg boards.

I don't care if we play man or zone... really could not care less. but I do think we should at least have the ability to play either one as the situation dictates. and that was a frustration (one of many) of mine with weber. he was SO stubborn that it just seemed like he was saying that he knew best and that any deviation from what he knew was not to be tolerated.

so happy to have a coach now that makes adjustments based on game situations and the weaknesses or strengths of the opponent. GT was known to be a weak shooting team with a strong inside game and a zone defense was perfect for them..... probly be a completely different story vs IU unless Zeller is just killing us inside.

Pistol Pete

sug - Didn't make it to any shootouts last weekend. Dec has a buddy that probably went to the one in S-field. I'll talk to him tomorrow when we go to the WC game. I totally agree about Groce making adjustments based on game situations & the strengths & weaknesses of opponents.
I also agree with illini4fan about Groce greeting the players as they come out of a game.


Sug: One of my friends went to springfield and he said Ulis was the best "player" at the shootout. He went head to head with Austin and outplayed him. It should be interesting to see what develops since we have offered Austin. One of the assistant coaches (I think it was J. Walker) was there to watch Austin and Finke. My buddy said Finke is a nice player, he did all the right things. If we cannot get a 5 star PG in the next class, I would like to see Groce take a flyer on Ulis. He would be perfect for Groce's system. My buddy said you cannot get the ball away from him and he has consumate PG skills.

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