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Is Illinois basketball coach search really a ‘national embarrassment?’

Ohio coach John Groce appears be Illinois' sixth choice for basketball coach. | AP

Ohio coach John Groce appears to be Illinois' sixth choice for basketball coach. | AP

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Updated: March 26, 2012 2:59PM



Coaches of all races and creeds are turning down the Illinois basketball job. After being rejected by VCU’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas should offer the job to Kansas State’s Frank Martin — a son of Cuban immigrants — and go for the triple crown.

But with Thomas apparently down to his sixth choice after Smart, Stevens, Alabama’s Anthony Grant, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Washington’s Lorenzo Romar reportedly rejected offers or overtures, it remains to be seen if the Illinois coaching search is truly a ‘‘national embarrassment,’’ as the Score’s college basketball expert Dan Bernstein described it.

Yes, the Illinois job isn’t what it used to be. Lon Kruger was two years removed from a Final Four appearance at Florida when he went to Illinois in 1996. Bill Self turned down Minnesota and Nebraska and took himself out of consideration at Missouri and Georgia Tech but jumped at the Illinois job in 2000. Now the Illini are getting rejected by coaches of mid-major programs and major-conference programs that didn’t even make the NCAA tournament this season. If Thomas called Kim Mulkey, Baylor women’s coach, she’d probably have to think about it.

But times have changed in college basketball to the detriment of schools like Illinois. The last two NCAA tournaments — including the Final Four — have been dominated by teams at opposite ends of the Division I spectrum — those that recruit at the highest level and mid-major schools driven by overlooked kids with something to prove.

All the schools in the middle aren’t as attractive as they used to be. Missouri didn’t even get to first base with Shaka Smart and struck out with Purdue’s Matt Painter last year, then settled for Miami’s Frank Haith, an uninspiring candidate who was coming off a 21-15 season and an NIT bid. North Carolina State was rejected by Smart, Arizona’s Sean Miller and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall last year and settled for retread Mark Gottfried, who was out of coaching after resigning under pressure at Alabama in 2009.

Haith took leftover talent and led Missouri to one of its greatest regular seasons in school history, though the Tigers did crap out in the NCAA tournament, losing as a No. 2 seed to No. 15 Norfolk State. But Gottfried took the same team that got Sidney Lowe fired and reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed this season — and nearly beat No. 2 seed Kansas last week. He was the product of an ‘‘embarrassing’’ coaching search, too.

It remains to be seen if Gottfried can sustain his success at North Carolina State. But nonetheless, Illinois’ coaching search isn’t an embarrassment until the next guy fails. And it would be premature to dismiss Ohio’s John Groce just because he’s Illinois’ sixth choice.

Did you know that Groce has beaten more top-4 seeded teams in the NCAA tournament than Self had when he was hired by Illinois? It’s true. In 2010, No. 14 Ohio beat No. 3 Georgetown in the first round. This year, No. 13 Ohio beat No. 4 Michigan and took No. 1 North Carolina to overtime before losing. Self’s biggest victory at Tulsa was an upset of No. 2 Cincinnati in 2000 — when Bob Huggins was without Kenyon Martin, the national Player of the Year who missed the tournament with an injury.

In fact, when Self and Tulsa reached the Elite Eight that season as a No. 7 seed, Tulsa actually lost to a lower-seeded team — No. 8 North Carolina and Bill Guthridge. And Illinois was happy to get him.

I don’t know the man, but Groce’s resume is stronger than Self’s was when Illinois hired him. And in this day and age, Groce’s mid-major background can’t be dismissed. On the contrary, that seems to be where all the up-and-coming coaches are coming from.

Groce was an assistant to Thad Matta for four seasons before getting the Ohio job. Matta came from similar humble roots to become one of the country’s elite coaches. He went from a Class A high school at downstate Hoopeston-East Lynn to Butler as a player, to Indiana State, Butler, Miami (O.) as a college assistant and Butler and Xavier as a head coach. Did anybody think he would become one of the best recruiters in college basketball?

That doesn’t mean Groce would do the same thing at Illinois. But it does mean that you can’t dismiss him as an unworthy, last-resort candidate, either. For what it’s worth, Groce recruited every one of the players at Ohio that upset Michigan and gave North Carolina fits. Not even Shaka Smart — who reached the Final Four with mostly Anthony Grant’s recruits — can say that. For all we know, Groce might be just what Illinois needs.



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