A single, nondescript basketball hoop sits in Pacific Park in the ever-growing Indian Trail neighborhood of northwest Spokane.
In their younger years, Tanner Groves and his younger brother Jacob played countless games of one-on-one at that park, as well as a few half-court games with buddies.
That’s not to mention football and baseball practices on the park’s expansive grass fields.
“We were 5 minutes away, so we’d just walk or ride our bikes up and play at that hoop,” Tanner said. “There are other courts around here, but this was one that was kind of close to home. We’d play hoops all day and had a lot of one-on-one battles.”
There are no symbols that they left their mark on that park, but they certainly have left their mark locally and nationally in collegiate basketball. So how about affixing a University of Oklahoma sticker on the metal backboard for prosperity?
“We should, actually,” Jacob said. “That would be perfect. We did it all up here.”
The same could be said of Norman, Oklahoma. The Spokane born-and-bred “Groves Bros.” left their mark there and are headed back for another year of Big 12 Conference basketball in the 2022-23 season.
The former Shadle Park High School and Eastern Washington University standouts met the challenge of playing in what Tanner terms “the toughest basketball conference in the nation,” by helping the Sooners to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) last season. Mind you, it wasn’t the NCAA Tournament, but it was a starting point.
Now they are focused on continuing to get bigger, stronger and faster to keep up with the challenges they’ve faced in jumping from the Big Sky Conference to the Big 12. After leading Eastern Washington to the NCAA Tournament in the 2020-21 season, the brothers transferred to Oklahoma following the departure of EWU head coach Shantay Legans for the University of Portland.
A first-team Academic All-American at OU, Tanner earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors after starting all 34 games he played. He averaged 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds while sinking 53% of his shots and 38% from 3-point range (43 of 113). Jacob started 13 of 34 games and averaged 4.6 points and 2.9 boards as his role on the team expanded as the season unfolded.
Playing time was plentiful for both under first-year head coach Porter Moser, who came to Oklahoma after a successful run at Loyola Chicago. Tanner averaged 24.9 minutes per game; Jacob 17.4. Those numbers should only go up as they embark upon their second seasons in the program, helped by an additional year of eligibility awarded because of the COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out the 2020 postseason and parts of the subsequent season.
“I need to gain 10-15 pounds if I want to be ready to compete at a higher level in our league, and even play beyond this in a pro career,” said Tanner, who was Big 12 Newcomer of the Week three times during the season. “I need to get stronger and clean up my diet so I’m eating the right things. I also need to continue to work on the things I’m really good at – if I can get my 3-point percentage up and shoot the ball really well, it will help our team. By gaining that weight, it will help my low-post game too.”
“I’m pretty similar – I have to continue to work on my body and get bigger, stronger and gain some weight,” said Jacob, who has two years of eligibility remaining. “I’ll work on my lateral quickness to stay in front of guys when I guard them. I also want to be an elite shooter for us and a player the team can rely on to make two or three 3-pointers a game at a really good percentage. I want to continue to work on my game off the dribble, and get more comfortable playing at a guard spot.”
While they were back in Spokane last month, the brothers didn’t have to play at Pacific Park to get in some basketball. Instead, they were playing at area gyms against other collegians, former collegians and even a few professional players back in the area during the offseason.
Tanner was in Spokane for a month; Jacob for three weeks. They also did strength and conditioning work with a trainer before heading back to Norman in early June.
“We were happy to be back in the 509,” Tanner said. “We love it out here – this is definitely home. We had a great time down at Oklahoma this past year, and both of us are looking forward to the upcoming season. But it was nice to get a break from hoops and spend some time back home where we grew up.
“We took if for granted playing at Eastern and being so close to home. We went away hundreds of miles and were so far from family and friends. It was really different, so it was nice to be back home and enjoy the Pacific Northwest. We love it up here.”
Returning to Spokane at the conclusion of the spring semester provided the brothers a time to reflect on their accomplishments and good fortunes. Hoopfest is one of them. Tanner estimates they participated in upward of 15 Hoopfests between the two of them growing up, but never on the same team because of their age difference.
Back in Norman for the rest of the summer, the brothers will work at Oklahoma basketball camps and train with a team that lost a few players to graduation and the transfer portal, but also gained some talent. That group will have time to bond and play together when they make a trip to Europe – Barcelona and Paris, specifically – as part of a summer trip NCAA schools are allowed to make once every four years.
“I’m hoping that during that time we’ll come together as a team,” Jacob said. “We’ll figure out our goals and become close as a team to achieve them. We are looking forward to it.”
The biggest goal will be earning an NCAA Tournament bid. In 2021-22, the Sooners finished 19-16 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12, then knocked off defending national champion Baylor 72-67 in the tournament quarterfinals. After a one-point loss to Texas Tech in the semifinals, two days later the Oklahoma players and staff watched from their locker room in Norman as their school was not placed in the bracket.
Tanner said he was “100%” certain the Baylor win clinched his team a berth, yet he still had to endure having the Sooners called a bubble team and accepting a NIT invitation as a consolation prize.
“We beat some incredible teams and had some close games against others who either won it or advanced to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight,” he said. “It was a tough blow.”
Six Big 12 teams made the tournament. Oklahoma beat the likes of NCAA Tournament teams Texas Tech, Iowa State and Arkansas, and lost two regular-season games to Kansas by a combined five points. Kansas went on to win the national title.
The Baylor win was especially gratifying for Jacob as he had season highs of 15 points and nine rebounds, hitting 5 of 7 shots from the field and adding a blocked shot down the stretch.
“We felt like we had (Kansas) on the ropes in two games in the regular season, and was a team we could beat,” he said. “We had an awesome game plan and needed guys to step up, and it happened to be my night. It was a lot of fun, especially the atmosphere playing in front of 20,000 people in Kansas City. Everything kind of went our way – we had players step up and hit shots and our defensive game plan went well. It was pretty sweet.”
As they found out last season, they know there are even bigger challenges ahead of them as the season approaches.
“Opponents are bigger, faster and stronger, and the level of physicality went up so much,” said Jacob, who is listed on the Oklahoma roster as 1 inch shorter than the 6-foot-10 Tanner, but 25 pounds lighter. “It was a huge adjustment and knowing I have to get into the weight room. It took some time to adjust and get used to that and the pace of the game.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘punished,’ but it almost felt like that being in the Big 12 and not making the tournament,” Tanner said. “But it was a big-time blessing playing in that league.”
There are no regrets to moving 1,776 driving miles away to play in Norman, but there is still a “what-if” situation they both ponder in regards to the exodus that took place at EWU. Once Legans left, three key players and a pair of assistant coaches went with him, and four others – including the Groves brothers – transferred elsewhere.
“We think about it all the time – we miss those guys,” Jacob said of a team that included Kim Aiken Jr., Jacob Davison, Tyler Robertson, Jack Perry and Mike Meadows – all of whom departed the program with eligibility remaining.
“We made some really good friends and teammates down there (at Oklahoma), but at Eastern we had relationships with players and coaches for four years,” Tanner said. “That was true especially for me.
“We lost twice to Montana in the Big Sky Championship game, and by going through those experiences you really build strong relationships. Those guys are my best friends and are going to be in my wedding some day.”
The transfer portal, used by players to test the waters in a free-agent sort of way, has ballooned in recent years. Tanner sees the positives and negatives, but feels it’s important to keep in place because of the relationships built with a head coach and his staff.
“It’s hard to be coached by somebody else, it really is,” he said. “As an older player, it was easier for me to enter the portal and make a decision. It gives players the option to continue on with a coach or find opportunities to play in a better league. A coach can do that, so I don’t think there is any reason the players can’t do that too – especially if the coach leaves.”
Tanner redshirted at EWU, played sparingly in two seasons and finally made his mark as an Eagle in his fourth season in the program. Many players now are entering the transfer portal after playing just one year.
“The transfer portal might be the easy way out, but I think freshmen should stick it out and see what they can do,” Tanner said.
Both players are on track to getting degrees this year. Tanner has two semesters left in a master’s program in organizational leadership, and Jacob will start working on his master’s in business administration after earning a bachelor’s degree in sports business.
Tanner, who had a 3.89 grade-point average at Eastern, is in a master’s program at OU, which is exclusively online.
“It’s nice to have people in the stands for games – no doubt,” he said about the loneliness of on-line learning.
Together, the “Groves Bros.” are 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).
“Our entire weight room complex is called the Griffin Family Performance Center, so there are huge murals in there of the Griffin brothers,” Jacob said. “It’s cool reading about the Griffin brothers and seeing all their successes. Those are some big shoes to fill.”
“It’s pretty cool to be playing with your brother and isn’t very common,” Tanner said. “It’s something we probably both take for granted, and once I leave next year it’s going to be really weird. You never know what could happen in the future playing professionally.”
Or if they have reunions on the Pacific Park hoop – with or without a Sooners sticker.
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