Bill Self left Illinois for Kansas nine years ago. Self remains a fan of his former school, calling it “a top 10 or 15 program. Period.” | Amy Sancetta~AP
Updated: March 29, 2013 8:55PM
NEW ORLEANS — From the North Shore to the South Side of Chicago, there might be doubts and disappointment.
But here in the promised land of the Final Four, there is applause for Illinois’ hiring of John Groce. These people ought to know. They’re here, right where Illini Nation wants to be.
“I think John’s terrific,’’ Kansas coach Bill Self told the Sun-Times on Thursday. “He came out after he got the Ohio job and spent a few days with us. He’s got energy. He’s got personality and bounce. I’m sure he’ll have everything energized up there quickly. In that locker room, he’ll have those guys won over in minutes.’’
Illinois’ fortunes have changed since Self left Champaign for Kansas nine years ago. Bruce Weber guided Illinois to the 2005 Final Four, but the program spiraled downward after that.
Self, though, is not among those who believe Illinois has lost its luster.
“It’s a top-10 or -15 program. Period,’’ said Self, who will trying to guide the Jayhawks to their second national championship in five years this weekend.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta welcomed the news that his longtime assistant was moving up in the basketball world.
“We had eight great years together,’’ said Matta, who will meet Self in a national semifinal. “Having him in the Big Ten is exciting. I’m very happy for him.’’
Told that opinions are divided on Groce, who doesn’t have as flashy a resume as Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens or some others mentioned for the job, Self was puzzled.
“Why is he not being well received?’’ he said. “I got Tulsa to the Elite Eight when I got the [Illinois] job. He got Ohio to the Sweet 16. That’s huge. So often, the resume can be overrated. Him taking Ohio U to two tournaments in the last three years and going to the Sweet 16 this year is like several other programs going to the Final Four.’’
I’m not one to attach labels. I can name six or eight elite programs in the nation, and two or three of them are in this Final Four. Beyond that, there are 20 or 30, maybe even 40 schools that can be successful consistently with the right coach. Illinois is one of them.
Like Self, Big Ten Network analyst/Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy considers Illinois an attractive, top-20 program. And like Self, he’s incredulous at the icy reception Groce is receiving on his new home turf.
“He’s the absolute ideal guy,’’ DeCourcy said. “He’s an outstanding teacher. In Ohio’s three NCAA tournament games, they ran great offense, defended really well. What I don’t understand is, you’re excited about Shaka because he made the Final Four, but not excited about John Groce, who went to the Sweet 16? It’s two games.’’
What people overlook, DeCourcy said, is that Smart and Stevens dropped into talented programs.
“When Groce went to Ohio, there was nothing there,’’ DeCourcy said, scoffing at those who question Groce’s 34-30 Mid-American Conference record. “You have to build.
“He went from 7-9 to 9-7 to 11-5. That 34-30 is a red herring. It’s just people trying to find a reason to be ticked off.’’
Smart and Stevens are more proven commodities, and hotter names. But Groce’s recruiting background might give him a leg up on the hot guys.
“The difference between him and some of the other candidates is he has recruited high-major players,’’ DeCourcy said, mentioning Buckeye standouts Greg Oden, Michael Conley, Daequon Cook and Deshaun Thomas. “He was the lead recruiter on all of them. He knows how to get that done. If fans and the high schools and AAU coaches embrace him, he’s going to do fantastic.’’
Self also expects Groce to be a strong recruiter.
“When I came to Illinois, I’d never recruited north of Missouri or Kansas,’’ Self said. “This guy’s been in the Big Ten, been in the Midwest. He’ll have advantages I didn’t have because he’s already got built-in ties. Granted, I had a great staff. But he’ll hire a great staff, too. I like him a lot.’’