By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Down at the University of Illinois, John Groce doesn’t have a coaching problem.
But as the Fighting Illini basketball coach preps for his third season in Champaign this fall, he does appear to have something of an image dilemma.
Earlier this summer, when an ESPN panel released its list of the top 50 coaches in college basketball, Groce didn’t make the cut, while six others from the Big Ten did.
After two up-and-down seasons with the Illini, that omission couldn’t be considered a huge surprise. However, the fact that Groce was also left off ESPN’s list of 25 additional “coaches who just missed” was.
After all, included among ESPN’s top-50 list were Minnesota rookie coach Richard Pitino at No. 49 and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery at No. 33, despite the two having respective Big Ten records of 8-10 and 30-42 that are no more impressive than Groce’s 15-21 conference ledger. Fellow Big Ten peers Tom Crean of Indiana and Matt Painter of Purdue were listed in the “just missed” category even though both coaches missed the postseason completely last year.
The secondary list of 25 also included a bevy of mid-major coaches with relatively slim resumes, but Groce – who led Illinois to the NIT last season, won a NCAA Tournament game with the Illini in 2013 and boasts a Sweet 16 appearance from his days as coach at Ohio – was snubbed completely.
I’m guessing in large part that’s because he was snubbed so badly on signing day last year.
In what turned from a date filled with anticipation into one filled with disaster for Illini fans, Groce last November suffered the indignity of having star point guard Quentin Snider switch his commitment to Louisville in the morning and then the insult of having super-recruit Cliff Alexander of Chicago reject and mock the Illini later in the afternoon on live national television.
Neither made Groce look good. Those twin blows left his recruiting reputation with a black eye – and perhaps his coaching reputation with a scarlet letter. However, the good news is that the Illini coach has picked himself up off the mat this summer and put his game face on while casting what Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate has called “the widest recruiting net in Illini history.”
And it has Groce closing in on some big fish.
On Wednesday, star point guard Jawun Evans of Dallas granted Illinois an official visit for later this fall. That came one day after five-star point guard Jalen Brunson of Lincolnshire Stevenson – the state’s top senior – announced that he will take an official visit to Champaign at the end of August.
Also on tap for official visits to Illinois are five-star power forward Elijah Thomas of Lancaster, Texas; four-star point guard Jimmy Whitt of Columbia, Mo.; and four-star combo guard Shake Milton of Owasso, Okla.
Whatever Groce’s image problem may be with the members of ESPN’s panel, it doesn’t seem to apply to star recruits from across the map who appear quite eager to visit the coach in Champaign.
Still, as Illini fans know all too well, visits aren’t commitments and even commitments aren’t signings. So, come signing day this November, it’s absolutely crucial for Groce to actually seal the deal with some of these blue-chippers. He’s lured enough within reach of his net that it’s difficult to imagine he won’t reel in at least one or two.
But until he does, the perception of last year’s signing day debacle is a reality is for both Groce and his program, and it’s up to the coach to reverse that image.