By Adam Hoge-
ROSEMONT, Ill. (CBS) While Illini Athletics Director Mike Thomas has come under fire for what is looking more and more like a disaster of a football hire, it seems many have forgotten that Illinois is a basketball school.
With that reality in mind, impatient fans should know that Thomas will ultimately be judged more by the hiring of John Groce than the hiring of Tim Beckman. In fact, those impatient fans should know that because they will be the ones doing a large part of the judging.
And that’s why Thomas should be counting down to Nov. 9 when Illinois opens the basketball season against Colgate.
Groce hasn’t coached anything other than a scrimmage so far in Champaign, but he’s already offering more hope than Beckman has through seven football games.
Part of that is his resume. Groce built a winner at Ohio and took the Bobcats to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three years. That’s more than Bruce Weber can say. Before that, he spent eight years with Thad Matta, playing a huge role in Matta getting promoted from Butler to Xavier to Ohio State. Groce knows the Midwest landscape and he successfully recruited at Ohio State where Matta has turned the basketball program into a powerhouse.
Beckman’s credentials never really made sense. His defenses were never that good at Oklahoma State before he got the head coaching job at Toledo and the Rockets couldn’t stop anyone when he was at the helm. Now it’s becoming more apparent that Toledo offensive coordinator and now head coach Matt Campbell was the reason why the Rockets still managed to outscore their opponents when Beckman was there.
Now Toledo outranks Illinois in scoring defense (70th to 85th). Ouch.
But beyond resumes, Groce clearly has a plan. That’s not something we can say with certainty about Beckman. The latest report coming from downstate says the Illini came out of their bye week “with a dysfunctional coaching staff bickering over their roles and direction of the offense.”
That won’t be the case with Groce. He knows exactly where his program is now and where he wants it to go.
“Every year when you’re talking about the NCAA tournament, seeding in the conference tournament, seeding in the NCAA Tournament, competing for Big Ten championships and titles, you’re in the mix. You got a chance,” Groce said Thursday at Big Ten Media Day. “And I think that’s what you’re asking. Can we get to the point where we’re consistently year in and year out in that mix? That’s challenge. That’s the goal.”
Like Beckman with the football program, Groce firmly believes that can happen. The difference is, he seems to have a better idea of how to get to that point.
“It’s going to take a lot of people,” he said. “Certainly a lot of it rests on our staff. Our players are a big part of it, the administration is a big part of it, the support staff is a big part of it, people on campus are a big part of it. It takes everybody kind of all on the same page pushing in that direction, but yes, I think it can happen.
“If I didn’t think it could happen on a consistent basis, then I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
Granted, you hear that speak from almost every first-year head coach. But Groce’s actions back up the talk so far.
You might think a new head coach would want to go back and watch every game from last season to get to know his players’ strengths and weaknesses. Not Groce.
“I haven’t watched any,” he said. “I don’t want to develop any presuppositions. We’re not playing the same way, not that it’s right or wrong, it’s just different. So for me, I wanted to start from ground zero with these guys and develop my own thoughts on our guys and not develop any presuppositions based on the past.”
It’s a noble strategy, considering his players’ weaknesses are going to show up on the practice court just as much they did during Illinois’ 6-12 Big Ten campaign last season. And it doesn’t mean his players aren’t getting film showing where they need to get better. Groce still had assistant head coach Brandon Miller watch a lot of last year’s games, splice up the film and distribute it to the players.
As for the results, all eyes will be on the play of Brandon Paul. The senior guard was arguably the most inconsistent player in the Big Ten last year, scoring 43 points in an upset win over Ohio State one night, and then scoring just two points in an awful loss at Nebraska on another.
Getting Paul to be more consistent is one of Groce’s greatest early challenges.
“I use the Pat Riley quote with him: ‘Coaches will take consistency over greatness any day of the week,'” Groce said.
Paul is buying in, saying he knows he has to give max effort every day, while also adding that the new offensive system will help.
“I think it’s mind,” Groce said about what Paul needs to do. “Respect and appreciation for every rep. Respect and appreciation for the defensive end as much as the offensive end.”
It’s that philosophy Groce is trying to apply to the entire team.
“If you’re not consistent in your mindset, then I think it’s hard to be consistent as a player,” he said. “So I think that’s the biggest challenge, not only for him, but for everybody on our roster is to bring it every day.”
It’s advice Tim Beckman’s players could use too.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.