INDIANAPOLIS – Even before being discovered by Twitter and TBS on Saturday, Tanner Groves had a whole file on his various doppelgangers.
Bill Walton? OK, but not his favorite – and note that we’re talking vintage Trail Blazers Bill and not current cosmic color man Bill.
Jackie Moon? Groves loves Will Ferrell, but it’s “Stepbrothers” that resonates with him more from the Ferrell oeuvre than “Semi-Pro.” Our two cents: Gotta have more cowbell, baby.
“Look up (rapper) Lil Dicky, too,” Groves suggested. “A lot of people compare me to that guy.”
The making of cult figures is maybe the most charming spinoff of March Madness, even if it’s too often limited to the early rounds – and so maybe the joy was tempered more than it could have been for Groves and the Eastern Washington Eagles.
Because there are no more rounds for the Eags this year.
But the one-they-done was a show.
Their encounter with third-seeded Kansas didn’t produce the thrilling upset – the Eagles eventually fell 93-84 – but it was otherwise pure March, a Hoosier-infused shootout staged in the state-fair confines of quaint Indiana Farmers Coliseum with an improbable looking lead.
Well, leads. Not just Groves, but his younger brother Jacob.
Their play had the Jayhawks on the ropes for 30 minutes before fatigue, a few turnovers and, yeah, maybe a little five-star pedigree conspired against the Eagles.
“Those guys were very impressive to me,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Both really good players. They’ve done a great job recruiting. I don’t remember if they’re local kids are not.”
Through and through, Bill. We can give you directions to Shadle Park High School, if you’d like.
Eastern floored the Jayhawks with four straight buckets to open the game and, after getting their attention, counterpunched with a flurry of 3-pointers to put Eastern up 46-38 at halftime.
“Napoleon Dynamite and Jackie Moon are killing us,” Kansas Twitter bemoaned.
Moon – er, Tanner Groves – especially.
His combination of post footwork, willingness to move without the ball and 3-point range proved to be an impossible guard for Kansas big man David McCormack – who cut a cultish figure himself with 22 points coming off a bout with COVID-19.
And the Groves legend grew online and in living rooms with each of his 35 points.
Five 3-pointers? Tanner Groves > Luka Garza.
Putback in a pile? Lottery pick.
Flexing after powering through a double team for a three-point play? The EWU bookstore better have some Tanner Groves jerseys in stock.
“Pretty crazy,” Groves admitted. “Pretty surreal.”
The game turned in a subtle exchange. Kansas had fought back to take a brief lead, then Groves tied it with another 3. But on Eastern’s next trip down the floor, McCormack finally challenged Groves more aggressively on the perimeter, resulting in a miss. At that point, he’d become all of Eastern’s offense, and by the time he misfired on two more 3s, Kansas had surged to an 80-68 lead.
Still, when EWU coach Shantay Legans subbed him out with 16 seconds to play to applause as loud as 961 spectators can muster, Tanner Groves had joined the ranks of March Madness folk heroes.
The Pittsnogles, the Stainbrooks, the Groveses.
“Tanner is one of the best big guys in the country,” Legans insisted. “He can score with his back to the basket, he can shoot the 3. We thought we had a mismatch. I thought Tanner had the advantage all game long. We went to him, he came up aces for us. Couldn’t be happier.
“He’s a gentle giant until he gets in those courts. Then we call him Psycho T.”
Brother Napoleon – uh, Jacob – finished with 23 points, and maybe even a greater praise.
“To me, he’s about as good looking a prospect around,” Self said. “Six-eight, nine, whatever. He can shoot, post, whatever. He handles, has vision.”
And takes Twitter broadsides in stride, like this one aimed at the brothers Groves: “There’s zero chance these guys had electricity growing up.”
Because here’s the thing: The Eagles missed out on the good result, but they didn’t miss out on the good times.
Underdogs who let the big fish wriggle off the hook in the NCAAs often do their penance postgame, scraping their emotions off the floor.
Legans, ecstatic with the effort, didn’t mind collecting a moral victory.
“We wanted to get that Cinderella story and keep going,” he said. “Got to give all the guys on Kansas credit, but I love my team. They play with such fun.”
And Tanner Groves was just as delighted – with the scrap, with throwing a scare into a blue blood and the likely return of everyone on the roster next season. Yes, his new celebrity, too.
“It’s all fun and games,” he said. “At the end of the day, basketball is obviously a game that brings so many people together. You’ve just got to love the environment of March Madness and everything. It’s really cool.”
What would be cooler still?
Somebody telling Will Ferrell or Lil Dicky they were ringers for Tanner Groves. It would be a compliment, too.
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