Big Ten

Josh Whitman's mission after firing John Groce: Finding his basketball Lovie Smith to return Illini to glory days

Josh Whitman's mission after firing John Groce: Finding his basketball Lovie Smith to return Illini to glory days

When Josh Whitman looked at the Illinois basketball program, he saw a program 10 years removed from its glory days.

He didn't want to look up one day down the road and discover that 10 years had become 30.

Whitman fired head men's basketball coach John Groce on Saturday, bringing an end to a five-year era of Fighting Illini basketball that from a purely win-loss perspective was unrecognizable to the fans and observers who watched Dee Brown and Deron Williams march the team all the way to the 2005 national championship game.

"We have a basketball program that we all expect to compete for Big Ten and national championships year in and year out," Whitman said during his Saturday press conference. "I was here at the peak. I was here 10 years ago. I saw the energy. I felt the environment at State Farm Center when you couldn't find a ticket, when every game was an event, every fan was in an orange shirt, the waiting list was thousands of people long to get a season ticket to an Illinois basketball game.

"That was 10 years ago. And if we're not careful, it will be 30 years ago. That's what I can't allow to happen."

Groce built a strong culture and always did things the right way, but as admirable as his successes were off the court and in the classroom, those things are not what college basketball programs are judged on.

For a program that saw 24 NCAA tournament appearances — including eight Sweet Sixteens, a pair of Final Fours and a trip to the national championship game — in the 32 seasons that preceded Groce's tenure, a four-year tournament drought was just too much. Groce failed to reach the 20-win mark in each of the past three seasons, something that the three Illinois coaches who came before him combined to do just three times in 16 seasons.

The Illini are no longer one of the Big Ten's top-flight programs, as evidenced by Groce's 37-53 conference record, and Illinois never finished higher than seventh in the league standings during his tenure.

The challenge falls to Whitman to change all that, and obviously one's memory goes back almost exactly a year to what he did in his first days on the job, instantaneously transforming the Illinois football program by firing Bill Cubit and bringing in Lovie Smith. That gave that program an immediate shot in the arm and a reason for fans, observers and recruits alike to pay attention to a program that was at the bottom of the league standings every season.

Can Whitman do the same with the basketball program?

"It starts with leadership," he said. "And there's no magic formula to this stuff. You find the right leader, you surround that leader with great resources, and then you give him the room to go off and do a good job. So we've got to find the right person.

"Fit is really critical to me. You want to find somebody that appreciates the University of Illinois, who wants to be a part of this program in the long term. I think you want to find somebody, ideally, who has head-coaching experience. Certainly a dynamic recruiter is critical. Someone who's a strong leader, high integrity. Basketball can be a pretty slippery business, and that was one thing that I can say about John and his group is that I never once lost sleep over what our basketball staff was doing out on the recruiting trail or in any other part of their work. And so that will continue to be a hallmark of our program."

Most of that describes Groce to a T, really, and so winning basketball games will have to also be on a candidate's resume, too.

Groce was often knocked for his recruiting skills, losing out on several high-profile recruits and several high-profile recruits from the Chicagoland area, specifically, like Cliff Alexander and Jalen Brunson. But he finally hit a few home runs this recruiting cycle, assembling a 2017 recruiting class that Rivals ranks as one of the top 15 in the country. Other services rank it in the top 10.

That group of recruits was one of the reasons it was conceivable that the Groce Era could have extended a sixth season. What happens with those players moving forward is a mystery at the moment.

"It did complicate things because it's unusual to have a program that has performed as ours has over the past few years but to have a recruiting class that's as highly rated as ours is this year," Whitman said. "I hope they will give us every opportunity to bring in a dynamic new coach, give that coach a chance to build a relationship with them and continue to want to be a part of the Fighting Illini."

As Whitman embarks on his mission to find his basketball version of Lovie Smith, this question oh so popular in college sports circles is top of mind: Is Illinois a good job?

It would seem any Big Ten gig is an attractive one simply because of the resources any member of the conference can provide. The amount of money pouring into these athletics departments from television deals is ridiculous. There are new facilities popping up all over the league, including the renovations to the State Farm Center just completed down in Champaign. According to USA Today's always-handy coaches salaries database, the Big Ten boasts five of the 20 highest-paid coaches in college basketball (Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, John Beilein, Matt Painter and Mark Turgeon). And in hiring Smith, Illinois proved it's not shy about committing big money to a head coach.

The Chicago recruiting ground is a fertile one, though proximity doesn't always matter much in modern-day recruiting. After all, if you're one of the best high school basketball players in the country and Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State all come calling, why should you give up competing for a national championship and gaining greater exposure for a professional career just to play for your home-state team? For kids raised in Chicago and its suburbs, what makes Champaign home any more than Durham or Lawrence? So recruiting America is going to be much more important for the next Illinois head coach than just recruiting Chicago.

But, as we've seen with Smith in football, hiring the right guy can open doors to the type of recruits Illinois couldn't attract before. Then again, Groce managed to make the Illini one of the final choices of several of the highest-rated recruits in the country. They just weren't the final choice.

What Whitman is planning to sell to prospective candidates is that Illinois was once a national power and can be made one again. The athletics director argues that all the pieces are in place, there just needs to be someone who can assemble the puzzle.

"I think we have unlimited potential here," he said. "We have $170 million that we just dumped into the State Farm Center to make it what I believe is arguably the best collegiate game venue in the country. We've got unbelievable tradition, obviously one of the top 15 programs in terms of wins over the course of our history. The Orange Krush is unbelievable. Our fans, our atmosphere. There are a lot of things that can be sold about Illinois basketball. And I believe that is a much better story to tell than: Look we've fallen on some hard times here in recent years, we haven't won as many games as we would like.

"The reality is there is no limit on what this program can accomplish. Obviously we've got a great recruiting class coming in. We return a very talented, capable nucleus of players for next year. So I don't think that the cupboard's bare. I think the cupboard's in a pretty good spot and we can be optimistic about what the future holds, and we want to find a head coach who shares that optimism and wants to be a part of leading the program to realize that full potential."

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.