Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.
Tanner and Jacob Groves grabbed the national spotlight last March, combining for 58 points in Eastern Washington’s near-upset of basketball powerhouse Kansas in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
But that wasn’t the first time the Spokane-raised brothers flashed their massive potential.
It was in the postseason in Boise a week earlier at the Big Sky Tournament when the duo showed their dominance together.
Tanner followed his Big Sky MVP-winning regular season with tournament MVP honors, and Jacob joined him on the All-Tournament team, while leading EWU to its third NCAA appearance. It only seemed appropriate for the brothers to headline the tournament since the team hotel and tournament headquarters in Boise was the Grove Hotel.
Tanner nearly averaged a double-double with averages of 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, and Jacob averaged 13.0 points and 3.3 rebounds.
In a 65-55 championship game victory over Montana State, they combined for 29 points and 17 rebounds as Jacob led EWU in scoring with 15 and Tanner had a double-double of 14 points and 14 boards.
“I’m extremely grateful for Eastern Washington and my time there with Coach (Shantay) Legans, the rest of the coaching staff and our teammates,” said Tanner. “We wouldn’t have gotten to this point without them.”
That point would be Norman, Okla., where the Groves Bros. are key members of an Oklahoma team on the cusp of a Top 25 ranking. On Tuesday, the Sooners face Big 12 foe Kansas – the team EWU nearly toppled last March in a game that served as the brothers’ springboard to OU.
Shortly after the 93-84 NCAA loss to the Jayhawks, Legans announced he was leaving EWU for Portland, EWU’s top seven returning players all landed in the transfer portal and Tanner and Jacob announced they’d been lured to Oklahoma.
But while Eastern helped get them noticed, it was Spokane’s “Hooptown USA” that helped the brothers from Shadle Park High School develop. And they haven’t forgotten their roots, even while spending their recent days in America’s Heartland.
“We’ve had so many great resources – our parents, our family, our friends, our coaches and the community support have been amazing,” said Tanner. “Since we’ve come to Oklahoma the support has been great and has helped propel us to the success we’ve been able to have.
“It’s cool to rep the city I’m from. I love Spokane and it’s always going to be a part of who I am.”
“We grew up playing at the Warehouse and with John Stockton and players like that,” said Jacob. “They get together and allowed us to play open gym with them. Literally all summer – three or four times a week – we’d be down at the gym playing with the Gonzaga players and former college basketball players still in town.
“It was awesome for a couple of reasons. It helped us stay in basketball shape and it was a good time to work on your game and try skills you might not always use in games. We appreciated those opportunities.”
The opportunities for family and friends to watch their games took a hit by moving so far away from their hometown – 1,776 driving miles to be exact.
But between television and in-person visits, parents Randy and Tara Groves can follow their sons as much as ever.
“They love it and it’s been a good opportunity for them. How cool is it to play in the Big 12?” says an overjoyed Tara. “Every game is an opportunity to grow their game and get better. What a great experience – we’re just so happy for them.”
Randy played basketball at Shadle Park and Community Colleges of Spokane, and Tara (formerly Tara Flugel) still owns the Whitworth scoring record of 2,040 points and is in the school’s Hall of Fame. She grew up in Colville, Wash.
They were spoiled through the years at getting to see their sons play locally in the Greater Spokane League and then at Eastern. They made a trip to deliver a car and provisions to Norman in the summer, returned for a football game in the fall and then attended a couple of Oklahoma home basketball games in December.
“It’s different,” says Tara. “We haven’t seen them in-person much. It’s been few and far between, darn it.
“Last year was so crazy with COVID it seemed like we watched every game from our couch until the playoffs. This year is sort of similar in that regard. It’s fun to see the packed stadiums and the big venues they are playing in,” she said.
Making it to league games was easier in the Big Sky where Thursday and Saturday games were the norm. But in the Big 12, games are typically Tuesdays and Saturdays, and for the most part the schedule alternates home games with road games.
“That’s the way it goes being in a different league,” she said. “We can try to take off on a Friday, watch a Saturday home game and come back on Sunday. That’s about it.”
As high school educators, both Tara and Randy have careers that are more conducive to summer basketball than winter basketball in terms of attending games. Now, they see more summer AAU games involving their third son – eighth-grader Dylynn Groves – than they do of Tanner and Jacob.
But if nothing else, they do plan to see the Jan. 22 rematch in Norman versus Baylor (Oklahoma lost to the top-ranked Bears 84-74 on Jan. 4), make it to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, Mo., and, if it all works out, a repeat visit to the NCAA Tournament they were able to attend a year ago.
“Being a school teacher is tough because you don’t get a lot of personal days,” Tara related. “It’s tough to make it work, but we’re trying to finagle some things.”
Tara expects both Tanner and Jacob to have opportunities in professional basketball down the road, and playing overseas will probably be the result. So she sees them being in Norman as a positive – “I’m lucky I’m only a 5 1/2 hour flight away,” she says.
Academically, Tanner graduated from EWU with an interdisciplinary studies degree with a 3.93 GPA. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership at OU, and for the second straight year is an Academic All-America candidate. The Sooners nominated him for a 2021-22 Senior CLASS Award.
Jacob had a 3.82 GPA at EWU and is now pursuing a degree in sports business. Twice he was selected to the Big Sky Conference All-Academic team; Tanner was chosen four times and also earned CoSIDA Academic All-District accolades.
“It’s so fun for them – they are doing great and we’re so proud,” Tara said. “It’s part of being parents and providing opportunities for your kids. It’s all worked out well.”
While the move to Oklahoma has been a big success, it’s still the Kansas game from a year ago that is fresh in everybody’s minds. Tanner had a career-high 35 points for EWU, while Jacob had career highs with 23 points and nine rebounds. They combined for 19-of-29 shooting from the field, 9-of-16 from the 3-point stripe and 11-of-12 from the free throw line.
“It’s an unbelievable stage and it’s great for them because they are terrific humans,” said Legans at the time. “It is fun to coach them and see them end the season on a high note. Even though we didn’t win, they played great basketball. For both of them to get 20, you’d have to search to find two brothers to ever both get over 20 in the same game in the NCAA Tournament. We are proud of them. They were un-recruited and played great against some of the top players in the nation. They did a great job.”
They each scored 16 points as EWU grabbed a 46-38 at halftime before Kansas rallied.
So, what would be of the Groves Bros. had the Eagles not played Kansas, or had they not combined for 58 points?
“That’s a good question – I’m not sure,” pondered Tanner. “I really don’t know.
“That exposure was able to show the rest of the country and college basketball what Jake and I were capable of on the big stage. Through that game it helped showcase our talents to a lot of other teams and coaches out there, and ultimately get to the level we are at right now. I personally believe we are now playing in the best conference in college basketball.”
“Tanner had the Big Sky accolades I didn’t have,” Jacob explained of being an even bigger surprise for the Eags versus the Jayhawks. “But the March Madness tournament is a crazy time where a player’s stock can go way up or way down. It just happened to be a game where apparently my stock went way up, which was pretty cool to see. Without the Kansas game the portal would have been a whole different story. I don’t think the power 5 conference teams would have been reaching out to me.”
It’s still early to talk March Madness, but Oklahoma’s tradition and strong start this season suggests a return to the NCAAs. The Sooners are coming off their 33rd tournament appearance in 2021, which ended with an 87-71 loss to Gonzaga in the second round.
For the brothers, joining that Oklahoma tradition and playing significant roles has made their transfer even better than expected, they say.
“How well we have molded together in such a short amount of time is awesome,” Jacob said. “We have roles on the team and the fit with Coach (Porter) Moser has been awesome. Every bit of it is worth it and what we expected.”
“They’re living their best life,” Tara adds. “It’s good.”
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. A life-long Washingtonian, his love for all things athletics, music, reading and running in the region are topped only by his penchant for writing what he terms as “more than anyone could ever need or care to know.”
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