- The Fighting Illini kick started their future by parting ways with their head coach in a refreshingly assertive manner.
On Saturday, Illinois fired John Groce almost exactly 48 hours after another stultifying end to another exasperating season. The move was deserved and arguably one year overdue. Most importantly? It was quick. There was no allowing for a possible NIT bid to delay the inevitable, no pearl-clutching over Groce’s undeniable positivity or incoming recruiting class, neither of which should overcome a conference record that’s 16 games under .500 in any objective evaluation. Athletic director Josh Whitman acted with decisiveness and should be applauded for it. He’s demonstrated he’s savvy enough to understand that the pursuit of big-name hires best begins sooner than later, if not even before your current coach has been removed from his perch.
Whether or not the results follow, that’s a refreshingly assertive approach that all Illini faithful should find comforting.
Now Illinois should exercise that assertiveness again and go get Cuonzo Martin.
Whitman has positioned himself to make a hire that makes too much sense. He leapt into the market instead of dipping in a toe first, ensuring that he’d have the chance to woo the 45-year-old Martin, a native of East St. Louis, Ill., a city just 177 miles from campus in Champaign, a former Big Ten star at Purdue and probably the most reasonably realistic guy that Illinois can lure at this point. If the current coach of the Cal Bears has any inclination to leave the Bay Area—and there’s reason to believe he does—Whitman wisely hastened to offer a comfortable landing spot before Martin could get too far along in the process with schools like Missouri or LSU.
This, of course, presumes Illinois wants Martin. A report from Yahoo! Sports indicated that the school was prepared to compensate Monty Williams very well as its new coach, but the former New Orleans Pelicans head coach was preemptively passing on the opportunity. If true, that frankly says less about the Illinois job and more about Whitman’s laudable cunning to do what’s best for business, because those back-channel discussions had to occur before Groce even coached his final game. But if it isn’t Williams, it must be someone who can make an impression on top-shelf in-state talent that finds itself regularly pursued by Duke and Kentucky and Kansas and the rest of the college basketball glitterati.
Martin likely making just two NCAA tournaments in six years combined at Tennessee and Cal is worth some pause. A 28-24 Pac-12 record in his three years at Berkeley isn’t basketball sorcery by any stretch. An offense that ranked 159th in adjusted efficiency as of Saturday, per kenpom.com, will not give the masses the vapors.
A defense that ranked 12th in the efficiency rankings, however, suggests Martin can provide the backbone necessary for program building—or program enhancing, anyway. The offense can be corrected with a smart assistant coach hire or two, plus a couple good cycles of recruiting. To that end: The link from Champaign to Chicago, the primary hub of in-state basketball talent, is now extraordinarily tenuous. Teenage stars from the city do not feel their heartstrings tugged by the school two and a half hours down the road; of the 13 consensus top 100 prospects from the greater Chicago area between 2013 and 2016, just two—Kendrick Nunn and D.J. Williams—signed with Illinois.
This isn’t to say Illinois must build with Chicago kids. The success rate when battling Duke and Kentucky might never be high enough to make it worthwhile. It would be nice to have a chance occasionally, though. To offer something different. And the image of a 6’6” former Big Ten star making the case in living rooms throughout the city and its suburbs is certainly different. Martin was able to bring coveted prospects like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb to Berkeley; could he be as convincing to even just one or two difference-making five-star players within Chicago city limits? He landed Charlie Moore, a Chicago-area point guard and top 100 recruit, when Moore’s plans to attend Memphis fell through. He certainly should be able to convince Illinois’ most prized signee, top 30 center Jeremiah Tilmon, to remain on board. After all, Martin and Tilmon share the same hometown.
Illinois did well in moving fast to move on from Groce. It seemingly had at least one other candidate in mind, and that list may be longer than just Monty Williams. Archie Miller’s name surely will be bandied about. USC coach Andy Enfield and Oklahoma City Thunder assistant Adrian Griffin may get a look or may be interested. Though Cuonzo Martin is an extremely logical option, a number of circumstances can upend logic in a coaching search very easily.
Still, consider the summer of 1990, when Martin was a standout player for Lincoln High School in his hometown. He was, by all accounts, set to commit to play for Illinois. Then the infamous Deon Thomas scandal broke, in which then-Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl reportedly taped Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins telling Thomas that the school would pay him for his pledge to play in Champaign. Martin headed to Purdue instead, where he won two league titles and grew into a first-team All-Big Ten player as a senior.
Barely two days after another disappointing finish to a basketball season, Illinois made a swift and definitive statement about the direction of its program. It can make another one by rekindling a connection that was lost more than three decades ago.