CHAMPAIGN — The last time John Groce spent time preparing to play Michigan, he was also preparing to become the new basketball coach at the University of Illinois.
Groce didn’t know it at the time, of course. He was helping his Ohio University team get ready for an opening round NCAA Tournament game in Nashville, Tenn. Michigan was the No. 4 seed and Ohio was the clear underdog, seeded No. 13.
But when Ohio upended the Wolverines 65-60 last March, Groce was beginning to draw national attention as a rising star in the coaching ranks.
Groce and Ohio won the next game, too, advancing to the Sweet 16. And an even bigger upset was nearly achieved in that game before Ohio bowed to North Carolina in overtime.
By then, Groce was on Illini AD Mike Thomas’ radar and days later, Groce was being introduced as the new Illini coach.
One man who clearly remembers the Ohio-Michigan game is Michigan coach John Beilein, who leads his Wolverines into Assembly Hall today, one victory away from being ranked No. 1 in the country. The 18-1 Wolverines would ascend to the top spot after Duke’s 27-point loss at Miami earlier in the week.
On Saturday, Beilein said he has a pretty good idea of how Groce likes to play the game.
“He’s a really excellent coach,” Beilein said. “They do a very good job of putting pressure on the rim offensively and defending people.
“You don’t get to that point and have the success he’s had by accident.
“We saw that last year. After they beat us fair and square, they won again (beating South Florida in the NCAA Tournament) and then one more big foul shot and they would have beaten North Carolina and been in the Elite Eight.
“They were a good team and he’s a good coach.”
Groce doesn’t need to be told how good Michigan has been this season. And it’s a different team than the Wolverine squad he and Ohio faced last March, one that has added two freshmen starters and one that still leans heavily on point guard Trey Burke and wing player Tim Hardaway Jr.
Groce has a high regard for Burke, who he first knew as high school standout from Columbus, Ohio.
“Great kid, great family, terrific player,” Groce said. “He makes guys better. He can score in all areas of the court. He brings that competitiveness to the game that all coaches appreciate and admire.
“I saw a stat the other day. The last (Big Ten) player to average 17-plus points and seven assists was Magic Johnson and he was pretty good.” Burke is averaging 17.8 points and 7.2 assists.
“When people talk about him as being a Big Ten or national player of the year candidate, it’s deservedly so.”
Michigan’s only loss was a 56-53 setback at Ohio State and Groce sees why the Wolverines have been so difficult to handle.
“They have a good blend of guys who have experience and guys who are younger,” he said. “You have to get back on defense because you can’t give them anything easy.
“They have a lot of weapons — guys who can shoot the ball, guy who can finish above the rim. And they have an elite-level point guard. They’re really good.”
Illini senior D.J. Richardson is coming off a career-best game in Illlinois’ 71-51 victory at Nebraska. Richardson scored 30 points and was lauded by Groce for his defensive prowess.
Groce said it’s possible Richardson’s offensive outburst will bring him extra defensive attention, which could have a trickle down impact on teammates like Brandon Paul, who routinely draws double-teams.
“I think it could help, for sure,” Groce said. “It helps the offense in terms of spacing.”
Richardson will draw a tough defensive assignment today, whether it’s Burke or Hardaway. And Groce expects his top defensive player to be up to the task.
“He’s smart, he’s tough and he cares about it,” Groce said in explaining Richardson’s defensive effectiveness. “He’s pretty detailed. It starts with his basketball I.Q. defensively and the fact that he cares about it at such a high, high level. And he doesn’t attach offense to the way he plays defensively. Part of that is maturity.
“I think he’s a really good defender, on the ball and off the ball.”
Today’s game is a sellout and is the first of five consecutive Sunday games for the Illini, including next week’s Super Bowl Sunday home game against Wisconsin (2:30 p.m.).