Former Sooner sharpshooter Groves hopes to light up scoreboard for Virginia

By Scott Ratcliffe

Photo: Oklahoma Athletics

Oklahoma graduate-transfer forward Jacob Groves knows exactly why Virginia head coach Tony Bennett wanted him in a Cavalier uniform come November — to sink some buckets and help generate points.

As Groves is making a home in Charlottesville and begins to prepare for his last hurrah at the collegiate level, he said he’s feeling better than ever about his shot after going through his first few workouts and practices with the Cavaliers.

“Just getting in the gym and working with our player-development guys, they’re some of the best in the country, and so I feel like I’m shooting the ball the best I’ve ever shot it, which is a really good sign,” admitted Groves, who hails from Spokane, Wash., where he starred at Shadle Park High School. “And so I’m really enjoying that. And then just talking with Coach Bennett, and the kind of offense that we run and the opportunities that I’ll have, I’m really excited to start playing games and keep practicing and getting some of those opportunities to shoot the rock.”

Known mostly as a spot-up, catch-and-release, long-range shooter, Groves can also finish in transition, or freeze a defender with a pump fake and create an easier look from in close. 

At 6-foot-9, 216-pounds, he’s not exactly known for his rebounding ability (his season high in that category was just six, which he achieved on three separate occasions), but Groves is hoping to become more effective and more of a presence in the paint as he transitions to ACC basketball. Again, he knows the main reason he’s here.

“I’m kind of a bigger guy and so I’d like to think I can post up a little bit, get on the glass a little bit,” he said. “And then honestly, shooting is probably going to be a big part of that — just overall shot-making. I am kind of a guy who’s going to do whatever I’m called to do. Whatever role they need me in is something I’m gonna step into, and then I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability, obviously, and just try and do whatever I can to help the team win.”

For an offense that had its struggles down the stretch last season, particularly after losing a major chunk of its scoring, Groves will be a welcome addition if he and a couple of the lethal shooters around him are able to consistently knock down shots throughout the campaign. He had his ups and downs last season in Oklahoma, but came to UVA ready to contribute and ready to win.

A marksman from long range

Groves played in 32 games (22 starts) last season as a senior with the Sooners, averaging 6.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 0.4 steals in 20.5 minutes per game. He shot 81 for 185 (44 percent) from the field, 37 for 97 (38 percent) from downtown and 17 for 24 (71 percent) from the free-throw line.

He had eight games last season in which he knocked down multiple 3-pointers. Groves, who will wear the No. 34 jersey as a Cavalier, registered double figures nine times in 2022-23, with a career high of 26 points against Central Arkansas in December. In 29 minutes, he connected on 10 of his 13 field-goal attempts — including hitting 4 of 6 from downtown — while matching a season high with three steals on the other end.

Photo: Oklahoma Athletics

He sank a career-high 5 triples in the Big 12 opener against sixth-ranked Texas two weeks later, finishing with 17 points. 

As well as things were going at that point in the season, Groves then went into an 18-for-65 shooting slump (28 percent) over his next 15 games, including 7 for 34 (21 percent) from beyond the arc, and lost his starting spot for the Sooners’ final 10 games.

Coming off the bench, Groves shot 60 percent from the floor (12 for 20) and 57 percent from downtown (8 for 14) in his last four contests, putting up 16 points (4 for 5 from deep) and 5 boards in an upset at No. 23 Iowa State and 11 points at No. 11 Kansas State.

Bennett, who knows a thing or two about perimeter shooting himself, made plenty of connections during his stint with Washington State prior to taking the reins in Charlottesville, and he and Groves had a lot in common when they first spoke about the possibility of joining forces in the offseason.

“I think Coach Bennett was obviously one of the main reasons that I came here,” Groves admitted. “When I was in the transfer portal and I got that first recruiting phone call from him, we were able to instantly connect through some of our ties at Washington State and his time he spent in Washington, knowing a lot of the same people that I know, and so it was just a super-good connection, super-good relationship that I was able to develop with him early.”

‘A different beast’

Learning UVA’s Pack Line defense can be a tough adjustment for a newcomer, but Groves thinks he’s got a bit of a head start after playing two years under OU head coach Porter Moser. The Sooners ranked in the top 100 nationally in scoring defense in both seasons, and Groves said he’s applying everything he’s learned in his four years of college ball to help integrate himself defensively into the Pack Line.

“It hasn’t been too challenging for me, honestly,” Groves said about getting familiar with his new defense. “I’d like to think I’m a guy who picks stuff up pretty quick. Obviously Coach Moser’s a very defensive-oriented coach and so he’s taught me a lot of good habits, and a lot of those obviously translate over to what Tony Bennett wants to do.

“Obviously the Pack Line is kind of a different beast, but I’m just getting my habits down and kind of the stuff that I am consistently doing on the defensive end. That’s been really helpful for me. And then obviously, we have some incredible coaches here that all have been in the system and know the Pack Line inside and out, so being able to learn from them has been a super cool opportunity as well.”

Oh brother, where art thou?

When Groves begins his final season of college basketball this fall, there will be an unfamiliar absence for him — while it will be his fifth season playing at the Division-I level, it’ll be the first time that Groves’ older brother, Tanner, will not be his teammate. 

“It’s definitely been a little different being here because, obviously, I played my four previous years of college basketball and he’s been on my team,” Groves said of his current situation. “Just growing up with him and playing hoops, and then being able to do that in college for my parents, my family, we’ve just been so fortunate, so blessed in that.”

UVA will be Groves’ third school, as he played his first two seasons at nearby Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Conference before joining the Sooners for his junior and senior years.

Jacob and Tanner Groves (Photo: Sooner Sports)

During their summers in Spokane, Groves and his brother played pickup games with legendary point guard John Stockton and other former Gonzaga players.

“Tanner and I used to love just coming back in the summer and playing hoops,” said Groves. “They’ve got a really good crew of guys, and Spokane is such a big hoops town and so they love their basketball. There’s a lot of people who played professionally, who played in college, they come back and live there and continue to just try and drive the game in Spokane. I think John is doing a really good job of that, and just keeping the door open and keeping good runs going all summer long.”

This summer, Tanner is getting his shot with an NBA organization.

“[Tanner is] playing summer league with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now,” said Groves, “and so he’s doing that and then kind of getting some good experience and we’ll probably see where he lands here in the next couple of months, I would imagine.”

The game that changed everything

Tanner made the move from Eastern Washington to Norman with Groves after the two combined for 58 points in a 93-84 NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas in 2021. It turned out to be the brothers’ last game at EWU, after their head coach, Shantay Legans, announced that he would be leaving the Eagles’ program to coach at Portland.

In that game, Groves went off for a then-career-high 23 points (8 for 11 FG; 4 for 5 from long range) and 9 rebounds against the Jayhawks, while Tanner poured in a career-best 35 points of his own as the Eagles led by eight at halftime and nearly pulled off a massive upset.

Groves said he believes that performance paved the way to hearing from Power 5 schools when he considered leaving for greener pastures at season’s end. He said the transfer portal “would have been a different story,” had he not had a monster game on that big stage.

“Playing in the Big Sky — which is an awesome conference but it’s a mid-major and it’s kind of a one-bid league — you don’t have a choice but to win the conference tournament to make the Big Dance,” Groves said. “And so we were super fortunate to have a really good team that year, and able to win the conference tournament and make it there, and it was kind of a testament to just all the hard work that we put in that year.

“Not just myself, but just everyone on our team, just how we were able to hang in there and kind of make some noise on the national stage. And so I think that that was really good for myself, and then just a lot of our guys showing that we can play against some of the best teams in the country.”

Getting back to The Dance

Oklahoma didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament in either of Groves’ two years with the Sooners, finishing 19-16 (NIT second-round loss to St. Bonaventure) in 2021-22 and 15-17 last season. The ultimate capper for Groves would be a trip back to the postseason next March, and he certainly believes the Cavaliers have the talent, athleticism, experience and depth necessary to make a tournament run.

Photo: Oklahoma Athletics

“We are a very talented, athletic team this year — there’s no doubt about that,” Groves said. “Some of these guys are just really impressive athletes, really impressive basketball players. There’s some really good pieces on this team, there’s no doubt about that. Practices have obviously been kind of limited as far as hours, so we probably can’t go as long as some guys would like, but the time that we spend on the court, we’re very competitive and we get after it.”

Groves — who said he’s already found a few go-to spots to grab a meal in his new hometown, The Villa Diner and Roots Natural Kitchen — spoke glowingly about the rest of the Cavalier coaching staff and his new teammates after spending his first few weeks in town.

“As far as the assistant coaches and the guys go, I don’t think you’re gonna find a better group of guys,” he said. “There’s definitely kind of a select group that UVA recruits to, and you can tell. There’s no doubt about that. They bring in good guys, high-character guys and high-character coaches — guys who love to compete, guys who love to win. And so being here for the past couple of weeks, you can kind of get a sense of why they’ve been so successful.”