Last Thursday, Illinois hired a new basketball coach, John Groce. Formerly with Ohio University (Sweet 16 this year), Groce has assistant coach experience at Ohio State,, Xavier, Butler, and NC State. Experts close to the program such as the News-Gazette’s Paul Klee and yours truly liked Groce as a a candidate from the beginning. Just take a look at our own coach search checklist, filled out the day after Bruce Weber was let go…
–Strong recruiter. Check for Groce – he has a reputation as a very good recruiter as an assistant and quickly upped the talent at Ohio.
–Up-tempo/pressure D/flexibility. Check for Groce – Bobcats ranked third in the nation for forced turnovers. They actually run a fastbreak and play at a much quicker tempo. If you watched them in the tourney, you saw a team that executed after timeouts and were able to switch up D to confuse opponents. Almost led them to upset North Carolina.
–Can and will recruit in Chicago. We shall see. All indications are that Groce isn’t afraid of the Windy City; the same cannot be said for Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens. Groce already has received an affirmation of commitment from guard Jalen James, and Chicago Simeon guard Kendrick Nunn will reportedly visit campus next weekend.
-Midwest/Big Ten guy. Check for Groce, who grew up less than two hours away in Danville, IN. Yes, that makes him a boyhood Hoosier fan. We will cope somehow. The majority of Groce’s coaching tenure has been in the Big Ten footprint, and he knows the coaches he will soon face.
-Big Name/National Rep. No checkmark here. And this is the box Mike Thomas hoped to check with guys like Smart and Stevens, the box the Chicago media were complaining about. To that we answer – when has Illinois hired a big name? You can argue that when Lon Kruger came over from Florida, that fit the bill. Otherwise the Illini have always looked to up-and-comers from the smaller conferences.
-Can relate to players and help them improve. Check for Groce. He has a strong rep as a guy who can communicate well with players, while helping them advance their skills and basketball IQ. This was getting to be a real issue for Weber.
For AD Mike Thomas, more importantly, John Groce wants to be an Illini. Fans can pine for this big name or that known guy, but if they don’t want to come to Champaign, it really doesn’t matter. Smart wanted no part of Chicago; neither did Stevens. Other bigger names did not express interest, and if you looked at that list of candidates, many of them have other questions. In Groce you (hopefully) get a coach on the way up. This is how Illinois can succeed. Look at Lou Henson and Bill Self.
Now that Coach Groce has joined the Orange and Blue, we have our own checklist for him. Something we’ll monitor and coming months, leading up to next season, to monitor his progress.
-Keep Jerrance Howard or tell us the reason why. Howard is a coveted recruiter who may have the option to move to either of the teams playing in tonight’s National Championship. At the same time, he’s repeatedly stated that Illinois is where he wants to be. If Jerrance gets an offer from Kentucky or Kansas he has to listen. But Groce needs to keep him on if at all possible. We understand and support a coach’s need to name his own staff, but Jerrance is beloved by current players and fans and has strong relationships with recruits throughout the state. Losing Jerrance would certainly be a short-term blow to the program.
-Recruit the current Freshmen. Groce needs to get the current freshmen class (six of them) on board. A big plus in this endeavor: keeping Jerrance. You want to avoid recent scenarios seen in Indiana and Iowa, with a mass exodus. Four of the six are from Chicagoland, and probably four of the six look to be solid contributors next year.
-Make your best pitch to Meyers Leonard. It may not matter, because if Leonard projects higher than we think in the draft, he goes pro. But if Groce can convince ML to return as a featured player in a re-vamped Illini non-motion offense with a goal of an All-American season next year, the 2012-13 team looks a lot better.
-Fill out your staff. This should occur pretty quickly. The biggest question is Jerrance Howard. After that, how many Ohio guys does Groce bring over. Is there room for someone like Deon Thomas or Robert Smith? Where will they recruit. Who’s in charge of the big men?
–Reaffirm Malcolm Hill and get another Illinois verbal. According to some, Belleville’s Malcolm Hill is the second-best player in the state after Jabari Parker. Groce needs to convince Hill to remain in Orange and Blue, and he needs to do it sooner, because other programs are surely calling. The sooner Groce can get a verbal from another good in-state recruit, the better. Could it be Kendrick Nunn? Larry Austin, Jr.? Get some momentum going, because the state is loaded and the Illini have spots to fill.
-Build the bridge to upperclassmen. Groce needs to get DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Tyler Griffey fully on board. They are your senior leaders next year. Need to avoid the scenario Weber had when he came on, where it took half a season to get the players buying in. From the outside it will be very difficult to know whether this is occurring and how fast.
–Recruit, recruit, recruit. Sort of goes without saying. Go get some players. Build in-roads on the AAU scene up north. Try to win over a few of the Chicago media douchebags. Get the boosters on board so Mike Thomas can move forward with the Assembly Hall rennovation. Illini fans will support this team in a big way if given a reason.
Let’s see it, Coach Groce.