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. Continue reading