Thursday, March 29, 2012

Make No Mistake, Groce the Right Man for the Job

Sports is a funny business. This is particularly true in coaching searches, where the search can concentrate on the supposedly top candidates and be deemed a failure before a coach is even hired merely for failing to hire those top candidates. In college basketball, more and more mid major coaches are sticking at their positions, staying happy with their competitive salaries and solid programs. As a result, finding the right coach has shifted more from finding the hottest candidate on the market to finding the right fit. And in John Groce, Illinois didn't land the hottest name. He's not going to make fans jump out of their seats (yet). He might not force the phones in the athletic department to ring off the hook with ticket requests (yet). But one thing is for sure:  he's the best fit for Illinois basketball.

The right man for the job
Where to begin? The process undertaken by AD Mike Thomas to find a new coach was extensively covered by the media. Seemingly every move was highly documented and led the "twitter mafia" to explode on a moment's notice. You had all the rumors - that coaches didn't want to work with Thomas, that the trustees were interfering, or that the most far fetched candidates were being approached. And really, this wasn't as a result of leaks from the school. This was the outlet for the modern "sources say" nonsensical media, where everyone with a twitter account thinks they're a journalist. I wish I could document how many times I saw "sources say" when I was following the coaching search. It's ridiculous to think that these idiots, let along the members of the media who, like the rest of us, knew practically NOTHING, had any "sources" that gave us information on the search. When you combine that with the anxiety of a fanbase desperate for a coach, its a recipe for disaster. If this search had taken place 10 years ago, the bad press the university received the past week or so would never have happened. And really, its because the school handled this well. The reason there were so many unsubstantiated rumors out there by all of this faux journalists is because Thomas prevented nearly any leaks from coming out. In all reality, we have no idea exactly how it happened. The school will be tarnished for operating a "bad, loose" search, when in reality the entire problem was fostered by the media. What a joke.

I hope that the media's charade in their attempt to be the first to publish news doesn't negatively effect the reception that Groce should have. In much the same way, I don't want to focus too much on the unfair conduct of the media because then really I'm just playing into their hands. And more importantly, doing so takes away from the real story here - Illinois, by almost every account within the coaching profession, just landed one hell of a coach.

Illinois was looking for a culture change; someone who could build and maintain a program. The list of requirements was lengthy: had to coach, had to please a rabid fan base, had to recruit, and more importantly, had to recruit Chicago. Groce satisfies all of these requirements and then some. At Ohio, he changed the culture of the program into that of a March pest who was one free throw away from beating North Carolina this year to advance to the Elite Eight. He's shown that he can take a program like Ohio, which was on the fringe of consistent success before he got there, and make it a perennial contender. His record at Ohio isn't nearly as important as his impact. Just ask Michigan, who Ohio upset in the first round this year, how strong Groce's program was.

Relationships with coaches like Smith will be huge

Groce cut his teeth as an assistant coach under Ohio State coach Thad Matta. While there, he was known as an excellent coach and outstanding recruiter. He was responsible in 2006 for the commitments of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook. Each of those was a 5 star recruit, and their class landed in the national championship game. Rivals even named Groce as recruiter of the year for that season. For him to succeed at Illinois, however, everyone knows he has to recruit Chicago. It's the main reason why national insiders term Illinois as a "sleeping giant." Well, Groce has experience there too. He recruited DJ Cooper from Chicago to Ohio, and he's the best player on that team and will potentially play in the NBA. Also, if you paid attention to many of the reports out of Chicago, instead of focusing on a few (incorrect) negative ones, the coaches in Chicago know that he'll come in and impress. The skeptical coaches are only the ones who don't know him. Robert Smith, the head coach at powerhouse Simeon (which counts Derrick Rose as an alumnus), even went so far as to state that Groce will most certainly NOT be blackballed and that Smith personally has an open door waiting. And from those who know Groce, he will be terrific at building relationships with the Chicago coaches. This will be key to bringing in some of the elite talent that comes out of that area every year, instead of letting it head off to programs like Duke, Ohio State, and Kentucky.

Keeping a coach like Howard is a great idea
Coaches around the country also rave about his recruiting ability, noting that his intense, intelligent, aggressive, and personable style plays perfect in the living room. He's known as a good evaluater of talent, and doesn't mess around or play games with recruits or their families. So yeah, those recruits like Anthony Davis, who had the slimy fingers of John Calipari all over him, might not land in Champaign. Groce just won't be dirty. But that doesn't mean that a large chunk of the elite talent in Chicago couldn't possibly make its way to Champaign. Another thing that Groce brings to the table is contacts and experience recruiting other areas. It would be great for Illinois to be able to expand its recruiting footprint and grab kids from neighboring areas on a consistent basis. A lot of this will depend on who Groce hires, and whether he keeps Jerrance Howard on staff. He may even go so far as to make sure he has someone who knows Chicago well, perhaps even an existing Chicago high school coach, join the staff. It worked when Wayne McClain was hired in 2002 from Peoria, which led to some great talent coming from that area. Regardless, it's exciting to think about.

For me, the recruiting is great and all, but I'm more excited about Groce's coaching style and what that means for players currently on the roster. Groce is known as a great X's and O's coach (combining great with his recruiting ability), and uses one word to describe his schemes on offense and defense: "attack."  He runs an up tempo, kick and shoot offense that he molds to take advantage of his players. As a result, the more athletic his players, the more success his teams can have. He's known for his "free" style, giving his players almost completely free reign to create. One of his main coaching tenets, and reasons he allows so much freedom, is that he believes that trying to overly control his players leads to more tentativeness and less aggression on their part. On defense, he runs the same tenacious, attacking style. His teams play hard, and his players love him. And why wouldn't they? Most recruits and college players will tell you that his type of system is the most fun to run. Groce feels that when they're allowed that much freedom, they're play that much harder. He's a high energy guy who tailors his system to his player's abilities, not forcing them to fit into a system that doesn't play to their strengths or confuses them.

A player like Paul should flourish in Groce's system
I think this is going to play out great for our current roster. A lot of the players are uber-athletic, with guys like Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, Myke Henry, and DJ Richardson all at their best when attacking the basket. Imagine how well they'll fare when their not forced to operate within a motion offense that doesn't take advantage of their strengths? I remember a few games last year when the players were allowed to run a free, up-tempo style. It happened against Ohio State and Missouri off the top of my head. The results were startling. Paul dropped 43 points against Ohio State, and Illinois almost pulled off a huge upset of Missouri in a game where Joseph Bertrand had his coming out party. Also, knowing Groce's success with point guards makes me excited to see the development of Tracy Abrams. I feel that Abrams is the type of guy you win Big Ten championships with. He's a tenacious player and natural leader, and that will coincide well with Groce's offense. Moreover, all of these players can become great defenders, if only because they have the athleticism to cause problems to most teams in the Big Ten.

Speaking of the Big Ten, I'm excited to see what impact Groce's style has on a conference that really has no team that consistently runs the same style as Groce likes to. When you think of the Big Ten, you think of plodding half court games with physical play and low scores. If Groce can get his team to play good defense, you have to think that Illinois could be poised to make a leap with an offense that the rest of the Big Ten doesn't run. I guess time will tell on that one, but knowing how his players respond to him, I'm excited to see just what Illinois can do with a consistent, cohesive team effort. Just watch this clip, especially the first part with Groce. This is just after they won to go to the Sweet Sixteen this year. His players love him and his intense style. That ability to connect with players is huge. Think it will work out well here? Judging already by some players' reactions, it's going to work out great.

Number 1 target Jabari Parker
All of this praise notwithstanding, Groce still has his work cut out for him. A key for him is going to be putting a staff together quickly enough to get out and tackle the loaded recruiting classes of 2013 and 2014. Obviously this centers around all-world prospect Jabari Parker. Parker and his coach at Simeon, Robert Smith, have insinuated that they will be open to meeting with Groce and seeing what he has to say and offer. Smith, in an interview yesterday, talked openly about how Jabari would love to come to Illinois and win a championship with his state school, but that he needs to make sure he makes the right decision for himself and his future. Groce needs to get in there and cement the already-solid relationship Jabari has with Illinois and assure him that his future is best suited at the flagship state school. And besides Jabari, the rest of the 2013 and 2014 classes in Chicago are LOADED. It's going to take a concerted effort for Groce and whoever lands on his staff to get out there and try to secure some of these prospects right away. Included in this will be the securing of the commitments of Jalen James and Malcolm Hill, two 4 star prospects in the class of 2013 that were already committed to Illinois and Bruce Weber. You gotta think that with his gregarious personality, his style of offense, and his dedication to his players, he'll be a big hit with the coaches and kids in the fertile recruiting grounds of Chicago. 

I think a key for him is going to be trying to retain interim coach Jerrance Howard. Howard is primarily responsible as the recruiter for most of the players on the team. Surely the talented freshman would love to keep him around. If Groce retains him, it would serve the dual purpose of both bridging the gap to the freshman on the team (as well as the older players), and representing a solid way to get in quickly and build relationships with high school coaches that Howard already knows all too well. I'm not concerned about all the false media reports that it will be a struggle for Groce in Chicago because some of the coaches haven't heard of him. Howard heard the same things when he arrived in Champaign on Bruce Weber's staff in 2007, and just look at some of the great prospects he's brought to Illinois. 

Groce also has to see if he can keep the current group of players together. Besides retaining Howard to help with that, it'll be key to keep any freshman from transferring by building relationships with them quickly. Groce should also try, and yes this is a longshot, to talk Meyers Leonard into foregoing the NBA draft and coming back for his Junior year. Just imagine Leonard in an uptempo offense. His athleticism would be scary in a Big Ten that would arguably have only one big man to contend with him, Cody Zeller on Indiana. 

In the end, Groce is the right hire because the fit is right. In college sports and athletics in general in this modern era, its sad that oftentimes, right or wrong, perception is reality. Thus, with the twitter mafia in full force, I was worried that because the media helped perceive Groce as a backup hire, one who really only got the job because others turned it down, people would have a cool reception towards Groce. I was concerned that his opening press conference, which Illinois held at Assembly Hall so fans could come watch, would be awkward with people there who feel the search ended in a failure because Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens didn't come. And then, Groce comes out and absolutely nails the conference:

The thing is, Shaka and Stevens were never coming here. As an Illini fan, I, like the rest of the fan base, was enamored with Shaka and his interactions with his team and success on the court. But in reality, he was never the right fit here. I was too blinded by my orange-tinted sunglasses to see otherwise. Smart was never comfortable with the idea of recruiting Chicago, and many people around the program felt that he wouldn't be tremendously successful there. Don't get me wrong, Shaka is an outstanding coach who is probably going to line up and take a job at a place like Connecticut or Florida and do great. But Groce just fits. He has midwest roots. He's recruited here. He's coached here. What's not to like? People wanted a big name, and John Groce certainly isn't that. I would even include myself in the group who's reaction to Groce was "who?" Really though, if you look at it, Thomas could have potentially stolen the next "hot" candidate to come out of the mid majors. If Groce had returned to Ohio, his team is back and loaded for next year, poised for a potentially deep run into the tourney. If that had happened, how many programs would have come calling for Groce then?

I also think that this coaching search proves the type of damage that has been done to the program over the past 5 years. When you combine that with the uncertainty of the general administration of the university, you have something that could deter people from the program. And isn't that the reason that the Athletic Department needed a fresh look? Isn't that why Ron Guenther should have retired sooner, why Weber had to go, even why Zook had to go? Illinois had settled into this groove where mediocrity was acceptable. The tenure of Mike Thomas has shown that more than anything, that will not be tolerated anymore. It's time that Illinois received a fresh start, something completely different from what we're used to. Simply put, we needed an attitude adjustment. Groce fits perfectly into that role.

Of course, there are detractors who point to his record at Ohio, which while good wasn't at the level of Bill Self the year before he came to Illinois. His last year at Tulsa? 32-5 with an Elite Eight appearance. So yeah, Groce's middling conference record concerns some. But while past records are important, the game is much more than that. How many highly touted, highly sought after mid major coaches go to big schools and flame out? And how many solid, under the radar coaching types make the same jump and succeed? My first thought is of Billy Donovan. In his two years at Marshall prior to joining Florida, Donovan was 35-20 overall with an 18-10 record in the Southern Conference with no NCAA Tournament appearances. His career at Florida since then? He's 386-158 with two national championships. The point is, you make the hire based more on attributes you believe can lead your program rather than tangible success at a much different level of consistent competition. Mike Thomas was looking for someone who "fit" the program. With all the attributes listed, John Groce is that man. I'm excited. When does the season start?


chooch said...

It would be so nice to have a good team to root for again, I don't care if it's basketball or football. I still bow to Rashard.

Dave Johnsen said...

Seriously. Now with two new coaches at the helm, I hope good times are ahead.