John Groce, Chris Holtmann share history, friendship

The tense victory Illinois notched over Gardner-Webb on Sunday was bookended by two moments between the head coaches of each program.

Seconds before tipoff, Illinois head coach John Groce walked over to the opposing bench and spoke at length directly into Gardner-Webb head coach Chris Holtmann’s ear. Just mere seconds after the horn sounded to end the game, Groce and Holtmann embraced in the handshake line.

Groce routinely delivers an earnest handshake and congratulatory words to the opposing coach after games, but this was different. Holtmann was Groce’s teammate in their playing days at Taylor University and was the first assistant coach Groce hired when he took the job at Ohio University. Holtmann is also a close friend of Groce and his family.

“We had a private moment there,” Holtmann said. “I’ve played with him, worked for him and our families are close.”

Groce complimented Gardner Webb’s approach, according to Holtmann, which had eerie similarities to Illinois as both coaches run similar systems. Holtmann said both coaches were barking out the same defensive, and in some cases, offensive plays from their respective sideline.

The matchup was scheduled before either coach was at the helm of his respective programs, and Holtmann said a rematch would not be scheduled because two coaches have such a close personal relationship.

But Holtmann also provided a candid perspective about the opening stages of Groce’s tenure at Illinois, based off his experience as Groce’s lead assistant at Ohio from 2008-10.

“I think Illini nation has seen what those of us who are close to John and his staff know,” Holtmann said. “His kids are going to play with great confidence. They’re going to play really loose and aggressive. They’re going to be in attack mode. And they will get better. I really believe that.”

Gardner-Webb has faced a gauntlet of quality teams during its nonconference schedule. In one game, the Runnin’ Bulldogs built a 20-point lead on Iowa in the second half before eventually losing to the Hawkeyes in the closing minutes.

Holtmann couldn’t say how Illinois stacked up against Iowa, except that they were both quality opponents that would contribute to “one whale of a Big Ten season.”

For now, Groce won the game against his former teammate, and now Holtmann will root for his friend the rest of the season, imparting one last anecdote about Groce as a coach and a person.

“It’s hard to have a bad day being around John,” Holtmann said. “He’s a really, really positive guy, and his team feeds off it.”

Illinois cracks national rankings

An Illinois team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season, lost a lottery center to the NBA and started the season anew with a first-year coach received little national recognition in the preseason rankings.

But just seven games in, Illinois made its first appearance in the national rankings, landing at No. 22 in both the AP top-25 and USA Today coaches’ poll.

The last time Illinois saw its name in the rankings was in early January, after the team’s impressive victory over then-No. 5-ranked Ohio State at home.

Two teams left on the Illini’s nonconference schedule appear in the rankings, with Gonzaga at No. 12 in both polls, and Missouri at No. 16 in the AP and No. 15 in the coaches’ poll.

Thomas can be reached at [email protected] and @ThomasBruch.