Genetics are a curious thing.
Burgeoning Eastern Washington forward Tanner Groves sports a beard that gives the 6-foot-9 junior the appearance of a much older man, matching his beyond-his-years disposition.
His brother, rangy EWU sophomore guard Jacob Groves, doesn’t need a razor.
But what the babyfaced sibling lacks in facial foliage, he has in height at 6-8.
They can thank their 6-9 grandfather – former Shadle Park player and coach Jim Groves – and their 6-6 father – former Shadle Park and Community Colleges of Spokane forward Randy Groves – for an accommodating gene pool.
Their mother, former Colville and Whitworth standout guard Tara Groves, appears to have passed on her efficient shooting to the boys before they began to tower over their Shadle Park peers.
Basketball is the Groves family’s business, and with the recent emergence of Tanner and Jacob on a deep, talent-heavy Eastern Washington (2-4, 1-0 Big Sky) team that hosts Southern Utah (9-1, 4-0) on Thursday at Reese Court, its stock is high.
“It’s not lost on us that we’re blessed to have them close to home, playing together and doing well on a good Division I team,” said their mother, known as Tara Flugel when she set a Whitworth career scoring record (2,040 points) that stands today.
“They truly couldn’t be in a better position,” he said. “As a parent, you couldn’t have asked for a better spot for your kids to land.”
This is what Tara and Randy wanted but didn’t expect for their late-blooming sons, who widely went under the NCAA Division I recruiting radar.
Tanner averages a team-high 14.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and Jacob (9.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) has also been a steady contributor for the defending Big Sky Conference champion Eagles, who returned four starters.
None was the Groves, who had limited roles a year ago.
“It’s been awesome. We play really well off each other,” Jacob said. “A big reason I have been getting more playing time is because we play in sync.”
Tanner and Jacob – two grades apart at Shadle Park – shared the floor just once prior to college.
The Highlanders faced Kellogg in 2016 when Jacob, whose sophomore year was hindered by a football injury, checked into the game to briefly join his senior All-State and Greater Spokane League MVP sibling.
When Washington State edged the Eagles 71-68 in Pullman in the Eagles’ season opener in November, both cracked the starting lineup and combined for 33 points and 17 rebounds.
They looked like bona fide Division I basketball players, though few recruited them.
Tanner, who committed to EWU shortly before his senior season, also spoke to Idaho and Portland, who didn’t extend a scholarship offer. He was primarily recruited by Division II and NAIA schools.
“I’d say I was a late bloomer,” who has grown an inch, a beard and added 35 pounds since stepping on to the Cheney campus in 2017. “I had two good varsity years. Sometimes I wondered why I wasn’t getting recruited as much, but was fortunate (EWU) did.”
He redshirted the 2017-2018 season – Shantay Legans’ first year as a head coach – and came off the bench as a redshirt freshman and sophomore.
Outside of a thundering putback dunk that went viral and cracked Sports Center’s top plays segment, Tanner was a relatively obscure piece to the Eagles’ high-scoring puzzle.
Backing up three-time All-Big Conference forward Mason Peatling – the league’s MVP last season who is currently play professionally in Australia – was a role Tanner embraced.
“I told everyone that Tanner was the second-best big guy in the Big Sky, but they didn’t know because he was playing behind Mason,” Legans said. “People thought I was crazy.”
He earned Big Sky Player of the Week after his sixth start.
“I didn’t show it much in past seasons obviously,” said Tanner, who is shooting 55% from the field. “But it’s starting to show a little now, I think.”
Jacob was skilled but more of a project.
In EWU’s wide-open system, it incorporates the “blur” position, reserved for long, deep shooters who can guard most positions and put the ball on the floor.
Kim Aiken (6-7), Tyler Robertson (6-8) and Jacob can each shoot and attack the basket, but Jacob, who was still growing, was admittedly slow as a 6-6 freshman.
Jacob, who yielded mostly small-college offers after playing for three different head coaches at Shadle Park, had the basketball IQ, body and shooter’s touch, but heavy feet.
“We were always waiting for his feet to catch up with his brain,” Randy Groves said. “We had a feeling Tanner would play in the Big Sky, but weren’t sure about Jacob.”
But Legans, seeing the development of Tanner, still extended an offer to Jacob, who has since grown two inches and improved his lateral movement in his redshirt and redshirt freshman seasons.
“I lost some baby fat,” Jacob said. “I wasn’t the biggest guy on the court or the strongest guy on the court, so being introduced to the weight room really helped me.”
Tanner has noticed a substantial difference.
“His body has transformed. He is 10 times more athletic now than he was in high school,” Tanner said. “In high school he was more of a 3-point shooter, one of the best in GSL.”
Tanner, Jacob and senior guard Jack Perry share an apartment in Cheney, and the family jokes that Perry is the third Groves brother.
Each is jovial and witty in his own distinct ways.
Tanner is more methodical and reserved than Jacob, who tries to find the humor in most things.
“Jacob is more outgoing, more talkative and funny,” Tanner said. “I’m more laid back and not as talkative.
The older sibling gets worked up a bit easier.
“Tanner gets pretty emotional and into the games,” Jacob said. “I get into it but don’t show the emotions as much.”
Growing up in Spokane’s Indian Trail area, the Groves spent plenty of time sharpening their craft and getting on each other’s nerves playing “super competitive” one-on-one games on the family’s outdoor hoop.
“They are different guys, but both have a sense of humor, Legans said. “You see how happy they are for each other.”
They’re relishing the rare experience.
“It’s a blessing that everything worked out like it did,” Tanner said. “We’re both coming into our own as basketball players and have this opportunity to be talking and playing together for the rest of our lives.”
Getting to the NCAA Tournament would make for a better story.
“We have a team that could absolutely win the league and games in the NCAA Tournament,” Jacob said. “That would be another step in letting people know the Cheney boys are legit and deserve respect as well.”
Southern Utah up next
When the Eagles host the surging Thunderbirds on Thursday and Saturday, it will be their first games since Dec. 19.
Five of EWU’s past six Big Sky games were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. Southern Utah – a team that would be undefeated if not losing on a buzzer to Loyola Marymount to open the season – has been relatively steady, sweeping Idaho in Moscow last week.
Paced by Illinois transfer (19.2 ppg), the Thunderbirds, often one of the most skilled teams in the Big Sky, swept league power Montana in Cedar City, Utah, earlier this season.
EWU, which currently has the eighth-toughest schedule in NCAA Division I after losses to Washington State, Arizona, Oregon and Saint Mary’s, still has the highest NCAA NET rating (110th) of all Big Sky teams. Southern Utah is second (135th).
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