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March 30, 2012

Illinois takes a very familiar leap of faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:00 am

Part of our continuing Alma Mater Navel-Gazing series.

Hiring a college basketball coach is an intrinsically speculative and uncertain endeavor that we all love to speculate about with professed absolute certainty.

In 2001 Texas Tech hired a coach who had already won 764 games and three national championships. He went 53-49 in the Big 12. In 2007 Minnesota hired a coach who had already won 387 games and a national championship. He has gone 38-49 in the Big Ten. In 2011 Missouri hired a coach who had gone 43-69 in the ACC. He went 30-5 and piloted the Tigers to their highest NCAA tournament seed in 18 years.

And that’s just the degree of uncertainty one faces when bringing on board someone who already is (or was) a major-conference head coach. Those guys are scarce, and since athletic directors overwhelmingly prefer hiring someone who’s currently a head coach somewhere to hiring an assistant, a well-defined career path has emerged. Assistants leave major-conference programs to become a head coach at a mid-major. If they can get their team to the NCAA tournament and win a game or two, they might just rejoin the major-conference ranks as a head coach.

With the selection of John Groce as their new head coach, Illinois has now gone to this particular well three times in a row. The first time it worked so well that the Illini lost their coach to Kansas after just three seasons. The second time it seemed to work brilliantly at first, but a dizzying two-year ascent was followed by a dispiriting seven-season decline. Illinois is by no means immune to the uncertainty inherent to this task.

On March 30, 2012, Groce doesn’t look appreciably better or worse than his two predecessors did on June 9, 2000, and April 30, 2003, respectively. Groce was an assistant to Thad Matta at Butler, Xavier, and Ohio State. In four seasons as head coach at Ohio, he won three NCAA tournament games and was last seen taking a Kendall Marshall-less North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16.

Groce was exceptionally fortunate to win two NCAA tournament games this year. In fact Groce was fortunate to get to the NCAA tournament in the first place. His Bobcats entered the MAC tournament as the No. 3 seed, and they won their games by eight, three, and one points. Once they were in the field of 68, OU scored 1.12 points per possession and shot 44 percent on their threes against Michigan and South Florida. Coming from any No. 13 seed that would have been remarkable. Coming from the team that ranked last in the MAC in three-point accuracy during conference play, it was remarkably fortuitous.

Of course good fortune can smile on good coaches, and Groce may turn out to be one of those. It is important to Illinois fans that Chicago products like Evan Turner and D.J. Cooper have nice things to say about Groce. It’s even more important to those fans that Jabari Parker‘s father is saying merely polite things about Groce.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas first approached Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens about the job, and was rebuffed by both men. (See if I ask Stevens to write another Foreword. I’m kidding.) When you’re rebuffed by coaches and your search stretches into its third week, you are ritually accused of incompetence. But where the sole dispositive competence is getting one of these two coaches to say “yes” to coming to Champaign, we are all equally “incompetent.” True incompetence would have been running a coaching search in 2012 and not approaching Smart and Stevens with a sack full of money.

Groce will therefore have to go about his work knowing he was not his boss’s first choice. That’s not ideal, but it’s not unprecedented either. Bo Ryan‘s done OK in Madison even though he shows up at the gym every day knowing Rick Majerus was Wisconsin‘s first choice in 2001.

As with all new coaches, there’s a lot of talk right now about Groce’s “up-tempo attacking” style. That’s fine as far as it goes, and the Bobcats certainly did force their share of turnovers. But bear in mind Illinois fans should be the last people in all of Division I to buy into stylistic determinism. Between 2005 and 2012 they watched the style on offense stay exactly the same while the results on that side of the ball went from sublime to ridiculous. If Illini fans get the results they want, they’ll endorse the style. Trust me on this one.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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