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Sports >  High school sports

‘It’s been perfect for us so far’: With Kansas matchup looming, Tanner and Jacob Groves embrace life as Oklahoma Sooners

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 16, 2022

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

They moved their homestead from Cheney to Norman, and traded visits to Missoula, Pocatello and Flagstaff for such locales as Waco, Ames and Lawrence.

Regardless of the towns where they find themselves playing basketball, the final destination remains the same goal for the Spokane-raised “Groves Bros.”

The NCAA Tournament.

And a chance to play the Kansas Jayhawks a few more times? All the sweeter.

Senior graduate transfer Tanner Groves and younger brother Jacob had a highly successful tour in the Big Sky Conference while at Eastern Washington.

When head coach Shantay Legans bolted for the University of Portland, the hard-charging brothers from Shadle Park High School found their own opportunity at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Instead of playing the likes of Montana, Montana State and Southern Utah, the brothers now face Big 12 Conference powerhouses Baylor – the defending national champion – Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Iowa State and Texas.

Oh, and, of course, Kansas – Tuesday’s opponent and a familiar foe for the battle-tested brothers.

“I think it happened for a reason to work out like the way it has,” Jacob said. “It’s been perfect for us so far.”

It was at the NCAA Tournament last March when the brothers served notice they could play with anyone. They combined for 58 points in a 93-84 first-round setback to the Jayhawks in which EWU led more than it trailed. Eastern held an eight-point lead at halftime and was up by 10 twice in the second half before Kansas took control to end EWU’s weeklong stay in the Indianapolis bubble.

While the nation had a field day with the brothers on social media – Tanner became likened as a head-banded Abraham Lincoln (not to mention Bill Walton, Jackie Moon and Lil Dicky) and Jacob was compared to Napoleon Dynamite – they let their games do the talking. They combined for 19-of-29 shooting as both had career highs for scoring and thoroughly dominated.

“Without the Kansas game, we wouldn’t be on this incredible stage,” Tanner said. “It’s something you dream about when you are a kid.”

Tanner, at 6-foot-10, 235 pounds, provides the boom and the unflappable motor on the court as a starting post player and Oklahoma’s leading scorer. Jacob is sneaky and deceptively quick around the basket as he makes the most of what the Sooners list as a 6-9, 210-pound frame (Tanner said he’s 6-8). Jacob, who graduated in 2019 from Shadle Park – two years after Tanner, provides valuable minutes off the bench.

Both bring an energy and confidence that has proven as effective in Norman as it was in Cheney. Beyond that, they’ve also found their own niche on the court with unique skill sets.

“His presence on the block is pretty awesome,” Jacob said of his brother’s game. “It’s something teams have to scout and game-plan for because he can score on pretty much anybody in the country. He is a big dual threat, and teams have to adjust. There are not a lot of players in our league that can get a bucket at the block and then pick-and-pop and hit a 3. That shows how versatile he is, and it’s rare.”

“We switch 1 (point guard) through 4 (power forward) a lot of times, and Jake’s defense has grown a lot in his collegiate career,” Tanner counters about his brother. “He’s able to guard 1 through 4, and at 6-foot-8, he’s really long and can cause a lot of problems for other players. Offensively, he’s a great cutter and can really shoot the heck out of the ball. That really helps our team.”

When head coach Porter Moser arrived in Norman on April 3, he knew little of the brothers, but he had just four scholarship players on the Oklahoma roster he inherited. The EWU departure a week earlier of Legans, who led the Eagles to Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament titles in 2020-21, opened the door for the Groves brothers to go elsewhere.

Both brothers entered the transfer portal, and Tanner received a message from a member of the Oklahoma coaching staff to put the wheels in motion. Eventually, he narrowed his choices to joining Legans at Portland, Washington State or heading for Oklahoma or Texas out of the Big 12.

Without meeting Moser in person or visiting Norman, Tanner committed to the Sooners. Moser had led Loyola Chicago to the Final Four in 2018 and the Sweet 16 in 2021, and Tanner liked that he came from a midmajor program and understood the plight of under-the-radar players such as himself.

“Definitely,” Tanner answered when asked if the blind faith was worth it. “In the very first Zoom call I had with coach Moser, it was really good to hear his vision for me, and our relationship grew from there. I gained a lot a trust in him that it would all work out.”

“It was kind of a relief,” Tanner said of deciding his next steps. “The few weeks I was in the portal was stressful for me trying to decide what to do.”

Tanner’s initial Zoom call with Moser helped open the way for Jacob to get a look from Oklahoma, too, and they both committed to the Sooners on April 18.

“My contact pretty much came through after Tanner had done his Zoom meeting with the coaching staff,” Jacob said. “After that, they started looking at video of me, and then I got a call from coach Moser a few mornings later. It was a different route, but it was definitely connected through Tanner.”

On May 4 – just a month after Moser took over – Oklahoma made it official. The Groveses became the third set of brothers in the history of the program – the others had the well-known surnames of Tisdale (Wayman and William) and Griffin (Blake and Taylor).

“Once I was able to start working out with the coaches and the rest of the team, it felt great,” Tanner said. “I knew what to expect – I knew he was super passionate about the game and his culture. I’ve enjoyed it ever since then, and I’ve done my best to pick up the culture and run with it. It’s been working so far and our team has had a lot of success because of it.”

“It’s a cool thing when a person like coach Moser has faith in you,” Jacob said. “The confidence he has in us gives us the confidence to play hard and know we can play at this level.

“There was a chance that was taken, and we knew at the end of the day we would have to bid on ourselves to work hard and get better every day. That’s what we embraced when we got down here. Put it all together, and it’s resulted in the roles we have on the team this year.”

Both brothers have played in 16 of the team’s first 17 games this season – Tanner as a 16-game starter and Jacob coming off the bench. After Saturday’s 59-58 overtime loss to TCU, Oklahoma is 12-5 overall and 2-3 in the Big 12. More important, the Sooners are 3-2 against ranked opponents.

“(Tanner’s) got an energy about him,” Moser said earlier this season. “He’s one of our loudest guys in practice every day. He’s communicating, he’s talking. He’s been a sponge to learn, watching tape, comes up, watches a ton of extra tape. He wants to be good.”

Jacob’s role off the bench has been to “bring some energy to the game and have a little bit of a spark,” Moser said.

In a 79-66 win versus 11th-ranked Iowa State on Jan. 8, the brothers combined for 25 points and nine rebounds, and Tanner had three assists, a steal and a blocked shot. Trailing by as many as eight in the second half and down three with 8½ minutes to go, the brothers helped spark an OU comeback.

Jacob, who finished with nine points in the game, hit a pair of baskets that broke ties, including what proved to be the bucket that gave the Sooners the lead for good. Tanner added a basket and a key block during the 14-0 stretch that Jacob started, all part of a game-ending 18-5 run.

The victory wasn’t enough to vault the Sooners into the Top 25 rankings, but they’ve been on cusp of getting in for several weeks now.

“That was a big win for us – no doubt,” Tanner said. “One thing we talk about a lot is going into every game thinking we were going to win. We were coming off the Baylor loss so we had a little fire in our bellies. We made it happen against Iowa State.”

That 84-74 loss to top-ranked Baylor on Jan. 4 certainly didn’t hurt the resumé for the Sooners in their quest for an NCAA Tournament berth. Tanner scored 13 points and Jacob had two in the loss.

“They are confidence builders, for sure,” Jacob said of coming off the bench for meaningful minutes in big games. “Just having those minutes and being able to perform well was huge.”

After Saturday’s game at TCU, Tanner has averaged 13.1 points, 6 rebounds (second on the team) and 2.1 assists. He scored a season-high 24 vs. Indiana State on Nov. 19. Jacob has averaged 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds.

It was that same game versus Indiana State in which Jacob hit his season high with 11 points, meaning the brothers combined for 35 of the team’s 87 points. It wasn’t exactly Kansas, but it was similar as they combined for 14-of-22 shooting from the field, including 5 of 9 on 3-pointers, with 10 rebounds and three assists between the two.

“It’s a change playing with a new team and coaching staff, but we’ve bonded together as a team in a short amount of time,” Jacob said of the early season success. “That’s been cool to see.”

Tanner has earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Week twice this season and was also named to the Myrtle Beach Invitational All-Tournament Team. The visit to the beach town in South Carolina has been the favorite road destination thus far for both of the brothers.

For now, though, Tanner and Jacob are focused on upcoming Big 12 opponents, including Tuesday’s home date with the ninth-ranked Jayhawks.

“Every other game seems like it’s against a ranked opponent, and that is just exactly what you want,” Tanner said. “You want to showcase your talents against the best teams, and try to beat them. Those games have shown what we are capable of, and shows that we can play at this level and compete.

Coming next

‘They’re living their best life’: Despite not being able to watch her sons in person as often, Tara Groves is thrilled by their move to Norman.

Dave Cook spent 35 years as a college sports information director, first at Eastern Washington University, then at Idaho and then back for his final 30 at EWU.

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