What a wild ride March was for Illinois basketball. The most wild ride for a team not in the NCAA tournament.
It was all kickstarted by the firing of head coach Bruce Weber by the new Illini AD Mike Thomas. Every Illini fan saw it coming, it was just a matter of who would be the next coach. Everybody looked at the roster and saw that Weber would be leaving the next coach with a stable of highly rated players, but players that seemed to lack actual coaching. He had 7 RSCI top 100 players on the roster, but only 17 wins. This gave some hope that a fresh start is all the team needs.
Now starts the coaching search. Thomas hired a search firm to give him the best possible candidate. Who really knows the names the search firm gave him, besides the firm and Thomas of course, but we all heard the first name that came out in the rumor mill. VCU head coach Shaka Smart was the #1 guy on everybody’s list. Young coach, extremely energetic and likeable, someone you can just see being a star recruiter for young kids in Chicago. After rumors and leaks and people with sources saying Smart would be the next probable coach, he turned down the job.
Ok, no Smart, then who? The next hottest name on the up and coming list: Brad Stevens from Butler. Twitter blew up with people saying “Stevens to Illinois” and even a radio show claiming over and over again it was a done deal. Stevens then made a statement to ESPN that this all was absolutely not true. The normal hopeful fan assumes this is a smokescreen, but it actually turned out Stevens was telling the truth.
These two events lead Illini fans to panic. Who would the next coach be? Would it be a former player like Eddie Johnson or Kendall Gill, two people who publicly stated they wanted the job? Would it be former Chicago Bull Reggie Theus, who has a relationship with the family of the #1 high school player in 2013? Would they be able to persuade a big name coach like Buzz Williams or Sean Miller to come to Champaign? Planes were being tracked by Illini fans all day long to see where the planes flying out of Willard Airport were going. Illini nation was worried.
While all this drama was happening, something called the NCAA tournament was going on, and a certain #13 seed was playing in the Sweet Sixteen and nearly knocking off #1 North Carolina. The coach at Ohio University, John Groce, a former Ohio State assistant under Thad Matta, was making his way up the hottest up and coming coaches list right behind Smart and Stevens with his tournament success at that #13 seed’s school.
Soon after his tournament run was over, talks began between Groce and Illinois. Initially the Illini fan reaction was “who?!”, but they quickly warmed up to him the more they heard national writers saying what a perfect hire it was for Illinois. During Groce’s introductory press conference he stated “Why not Illinois?”. Considered a top 10 job by some people like Seth Davis, and no worse than a top 20 job. Why can’t a coach come in and turn this program into something it should be, an annual top 25 team and NCAA tournament participant, competing for Big Ten titles and Final Fours? Groce is determined to make it happen, and his strong recruiting ability and exciting offense and tough defense sounds like the recipe to make that happen. Time will tell.
In recruiting news, Bruce Weber had currently three commitments still in high school. The 2012 poing guard Michael Orris quickly confirmed his commitment. 2013 star point guard Jalen James also confirmed his as well, but the other star from the 2013 class needed some time. This past weekend top 50 shooting guard from Belleville, Malcolm Hill, reaffirmed his commitment to Illinois after a visit to campus to meet with the coaches. Not only was Groce able to keep everybody committed, he seems to have made strong inroads into the recruitment of another 2013 star, Simeon guard Kendrick Nunn. Illinois is probably considered the leader for Nunn now after Nunn visited Illinois this past weekend as well. The #1 player in 2013, Jabari Parker, also seems on board with the Illinois hire. Parker and Nunn are teammates at Simeon and could be a nice package for Illinois in the future.
The future doesn’t seem so bleak as it seemed after Smart and Stevens turned down the job, and the cupboard isn’t bare at Illinois. Some quality players on the roster, and some studs currently committed put some peoples minds at ease. There will probably be growing pains next year, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see them improve on their 17-15 record from this year.
But like I always keep saying, time will tell.