The Basketball Whisperer

Mar 18, 2017

I'm a RECRUITING guy. You know this. I defended John Groce for five years because JUST WAIT UNTIL THE RECRUITING PAYS OFF. (The recruiting never paid off.) So now we turn the other way: we hired a Basketball Whisperer.

Let's be honest - I was so wrong about Groce it was embarrassing. I calculate basketball one way: land top-100 recruits, get them to their upperclassman years, profit. I think I've even written articles titled "Roll The Ball Out". Just get me a starting five of ranked players, a bench with some talent, and Roll The Ball Out.

Tracy Abrams #65 (using 247 Composite rankings)
Jalen Coleman-Lands #37
Malcolm Hill #70
Leron Black #41
Maverick Morgan #158

DJ Williams #78
Aaron Jordan #117
Te'Jon Lucas #142

........18-14 (8-10)

So you'd think I'd toss the whole "college basketball is about recruiting recruiting recruiting" out the window, right? Like, during this coaching search I'd dust off some NERDstats and look for one of those offensive rebounding efficiency guys, right?

Of course not. There I was, any time someone would text me, begging for a recruiter. I wanted Archie because I thought he'd recruit like his brother. I questioned why people questioned Cuonzo because Counzo can recruit. I stuck to the guns that had failed me for five years. It's all I know, really.

So what do we do? We go in the exact opposite direction. And this is probably a very, very good thing.

Since he became a head coach, here are the results for Brad Underwood's teams:

Stephen F Austin
32-3 (18-0)
29-5 (17-1)
28-6 (18-0)

Oklahoma State
20-13 (9-9)

When you consider that Oklahoma State was 12-20 (3-15) the year before, that's a mighty big improvement. Oklahoma State wasn't expected to do anything this season and started the Big 12 schedule 0-6. But as everything clicked, they finished their conference schedule 9-3 (and very nearly beat red-hot Michigan in the first round yesterday).

So... maybe I need to drop my whole "recruiting recruiting recruiting" thing? Maybe I should realize that the reason I love Illini basketball so much is because Lou Henson was a pretty good Basketball Whisperer (while Jimmy Collins handled the recruiting)? Maybe I need to get rid of my football-centric "it's all about bigger/stronger/faster athletes" mantra and start to realize that scheming a basketball game is wildly important?

I mean, I laughed at Wisconsin for years and predicted Bo's demise. No, seriously, look back to my early posts in 2009 and 2010 where I said "without big-time recruiting he cannot sustain this". (He sustained it.) I laughed at Michigan hiring John Beilein, saying that he'd never recruit at a level to get Michigan back to late-80's Michigan. Like, as I'm typing this out here, how dumb am I? I hold to this whole "unevaluateable' thing re: the early years of a basketball coach ("we need to wait for him to get the athletes in place"), but there's always been plenty to evaluate. Good Lord, the ways I've misled you over the past several years are astounding.

Look, I still believe in recruiting. Brad Underwood probably doesn't win 20 games if Travis Ford doesn't beat John Groce for Jawun Evans. Players matter. I'm not sitting here saying that the exact opposite is true - that Underwood could coach the 2008 Illini to 24 wins. You have to land talent or you're forever playing basketball uphill.

But throughout The John Groce Experiment, I've learned how much coaching really does matter. That just because you have experienced seniors, you still can't just roll the ball out. Experienced talent is a big part of it, and Bo Ryan can tell you that having years in his system means everything to their success (it seems like every Wisconsin team has three solid seniors, and how many Wisconsin players have we seen do nothing as a sophomore and then break out in a huge way as a junior?), so implementing the system over several years is key. The whole thing about recruiting to your system with a balanced roster still remains wildly important.

But you still have to have a Basketball Whisperer at the front. A Bo Ryan, a John Beilein, a guy who understands every mistake made in practice. Someone who can get the most out of his players.

And I think that's who we hired today. I think he's a Basketball Whisperer. I think he can max out every player. He was a Notre Dame tip-in at the buzzer from the Sweet 16 last year (at Stephen F. Austin) and nearly beat Michigan yesterday. And now he's coming to Illinois.

The best thing? This sets up really well for a Basketball Whisperer. There are no seniors on next year's team. He has two full seasons to work with the same roster. Two full years to take Te'Jon, JCL, Kipper, Black, Finke and the rest and mold them into a real team. Maybe even make the Tournament next year and then make a real push in 2018/19.

Oh, also - recruit.


uilaw71 on March 18 @ 11:36 AM CDT

Robert - this is Bill Self quality hire. Better yet, we have an AD who won't blow a gasket the first time a rival comes sniffing after our HC.

ATOillini on March 18 @ 11:46 AM CDT

Wow! I've been so incredibly agitated since a buddy of mine pointed me in the direction of today's column by a certain so-called sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune (someone who could seemingly find it in himself to write a negative article on Tatyana McFadden) about our coaching search. This is exciting. So pumped up. Enough said.

HiggsBoson on March 18 @ 11:47 AM CDT

Could be, but your extensive praise of John Groce doesn't give you a lot of basketball credibility, so we'll wait and see.

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on March 18 @ 11:53 AM CDT

I think he could have coached the 2016-17 Illini to 24 wins. . .

HiggsBoson on March 18 @ 11:54 AM CDT

Possibly. Gotta be better than Gross. Question is can he recruit anybody down the road?

Groundhogday on March 18 @ 04:22 PM CDT

They recruited at S. Carolina. And they signed a 4 star guard for the 2017 class despite coming in late.

HiggsBoson on March 19 @ 08:08 AM CDT

If you're thinking of Evans, I believe he was signed with Travis Ford before Underwood was hired in May.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:26 AM CDT

No, I'm thinking of Zach Dawson out of Miami. 4-star PG in the OSU 2017 class.

Evans was in the 2015 class, and played for year under Ford when they finished 3-15 in the league.

Groundhogday on March 18 @ 01:15 PM CDT

Look at his OSU staff. Loaded with recruiters

Groce's problem was that he was neither a good coach nor a great recruiter.

HiggsBoson on March 18 @ 01:17 PM CDT

Yeah, but did they recruit anybody? Travis Ford beat Gross for Evans, not Underwood.

MuckFichigan92 on March 18 @ 01:18 PM CDT

Sky high! I wanted the hire to be a declaration. I wanted us to quantify our respect for the program, both its past and its potential, by backing up an armored car and flipping a Billy Donovan or a Tony Bennet the keys. The $4.8M to Bennet story encouraged me that we were taking this search seriously and not taking somebody off the rack, e.g. Groce, Beckman or even Weber (though BW did make two S16s at SIU). This was a sniper shot: never saw it coming, bulls-eye! When Groce was on the ropes two season ago, I kicked myself when OK St. got the hotshot from SFA while we decided to play it cheap and retain JFG. Today, JW corrected those mistakes and got a top-flight guy. He saved $$$ and sh1t results by not involving a search firm, went covert and landed a guy I am happier with than would have been with Bennet or anyone < than Donovan. Bennet would have been a splashier hire but I'll concede his style may be too much of a throwback B10, slow and physical, to wow recruits, local anyway. Would Bennet's coaching have been the silver bullet to Robert's recruit-cubed desires? Maybe, but we got a guy who can recruit and coach. I'm so jacked. I can only wait for IU and OSU fans to goad them, "Who you got?!" With Underwood, we have surpassed #WeWillWin. It is now going to happen. Underwood's team will cut down then nets.

We Are Back

Joe Edge on March 18 @ 02:19 PM CDT

What ? ' Good Lord, the ways I've misled you over the past several years are astounding' . . . Don't be so hard on yourself, Robert...

Remember (and I've said this before), just because you write it, doesn't mean we believe it... I read it, I think about it, then I decide if I want to agree or NOT.... Doesn't mean you're wrong... Doesn't mean I'm right.... It means we're all entitled to our own 'opinions'... I'm willing to listen (read) yours, and I hope you're willing to listen (read) mine...

Keep up the good work Robert.

Very happy about this hire... Go Illini !

ATOillini on March 18 @ 05:41 PM CDT

This is a great comment. Well said.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 07:03 AM CDT

What ? ' Good Lord, the ways I've misled you over the past several years are astounding' . . . Don't be so hard on yourself, Robert...

What Joe said.

I was reading Robert's article and thinking, I know I've been tough on Robert about some of his notions about college basketball, but sheesh, I don't think that I was ever that brutal. ;-D

Now AHS and OJ, well... :-D
I guess when Underwood takes next season's team to the NCAAT, we'll get to hear all of the, "see, we should've given Groce another year!" Um, no.

Looking forward to seeing the Illini climb back up to relevance in college basketball again.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:05 AM CDT

Don't forget player development. Anyone think Ethan Happ would be as good at Illinois?

Sorry, meant to reply to a post below.

Lou-a-villini on March 18 @ 03:55 PM CDT

A good day for the men's hair color industry!

orangejulius on March 18 @ 07:17 PM CDT

I'm not sure why you're kicking yourself for being a "recruiting guy." Who isn't? Many of the players Groce recruited turned out to be overrated. Others have been busts. Whether that was from bad luck or poor evaluation, or a combination of both, we'll never know.

For the most part, the teams that not only win the recruiting wars, but are also out scouting their competition, are the ones playing on the second weekend of the tournament. Wisconsin has excelled at the latter, filling its rosters with players who can dribble circles around our guys.

The success of our new coach will largely depend on his ability to recruit, starting with our current signees. And at Illinois, he'll have to beat other teams in evaluating 3 and 4 stars. I hope he's better at that than John Groce, and luckier.

Groundhogday on March 18 @ 07:42 PM CDT

OJ told us after the Winthrop loss that we easily had the talent to make the tournament. He will never admit what everyone else can see: Groce couldn't coach his way out of a paper bag.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 07:09 AM CDT

Whether that was from bad luck or poor evaluation, or a combination of both...

You left out option #3: poor coaching

Wisconsin's recruits were just always "underrated" and Groce's Illini recruits we always "overrated" and that's why Groce in 5 years as the Illini's head coach never beat the Badgers. Yeah, that's the ticket.

You're still a funny guy OJ.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:07 AM CDT

And don't forget player development.

Groundhogday on March 18 @ 07:40 PM CDT

I love that BU doesn't just talk analytics but implements an offense based upon those Analytics. 3 pointers and layups. Generate offense before the other team can set up their defense. And that offense is beautiful to watch whether at Stephen F Austin with mid-major athletes or OSU with a PG like Evans. Non-stop cutting, passing and screening. Minimal dribbling. Guys playing with a clear purpose.

Groce's offensive efficiency at Ohio and Illinois was consistently poor. There really was no offensive system, just guys making individual plays - with an inordinate % of contested mid-range twos.

Trevor on March 19 @ 04:07 AM CDT

We got a Beilein. I'm beside myself with excitement.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 06:55 AM CDT

I'm watching Louisville v Michigan. The Cardinals look dominating, but Michigan is only down 3. THAT is the power of playing the analytics game.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:24 AM CDT

Michigan just beat a Louisville team they had no business beating. And FWIW, that OSU 1-point loss to Michigan looks even more impressive after the Michigan win over a very talented Louisville squad.

orangejulius on March 19 @ 08:37 AM CDT

Aren't you the one who said Michigan was a bad team after we beat them?

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 08:48 AM CDT

Still don't get it, do you?

Good coaches make bad teams better.

Bad coaches make good teams worse.

Illinois and Michigan played in early January and the Illini won by 16 points. By the end of the season the Illini were losing to the same team on a neutral court by 20 points.

One team is now headed to the Sweet-16 and the other is playing in the NIT and OJ you *still* seem to believe that coaching has nothing to do with the success or failure of either of these teams?

orangejulius on March 19 @ 09:58 AM CDT

If scheme/coaching and mattered as much as you say, Jim Boeheim wouldn't have missed the tournament, Steve Alford wouldn't all of a sudden be a great coach, and Texas wouldn't have crapped the bed the last two seasons. There's not question that Underwood knows more x's and o's than John Groce. You can say the same about Bruce Weber. It doesn't mean that much.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 10:19 AM CDT

You are remarkably good at the straw men arguments. Kudos. I'm sure that has served you well when you argue with idiots.

Of course talent matters. That is why Beilein and Underwood work so hard at recruiting. But coaching also matters - both scheme and player development. Great recruiting + good coaching = success (e.g. Bill Self). But it is also true that great coaching + good talent = success (e.g. Bo Ryan).

Groce was a good but not great recruiter, and a poor coach. Hence his lack of success at Illinois. Given his success at SFA and first year turnaround at OSU, Underwood would seem to fit in the great coach category, which means he only needs to be a good (not great) recruiter to succeed.

Obviously it is simplistic to put recruiting and coaching into categorical variables, but I'm sure you understand my point. (I'm also sure that you will pretend to misunderstand on this forum to avoid admitting you have been terribly wrong about Groce.)

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 10:20 AM CDT

Okay, OJ.

So let's assume that Brad Underwood keeps all of Groce's recruits. Next season's team is losing Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Tracy Abrams from the starting lineup and is going to be getting a bunch of Freshmen (best case for Underwood).

The expectation is that next season's team, in terms of personnel and experience, is going to take a step back from this season's team.

Groce went 18-13 (8-10) pre-BTT this season.

What was your expectation for next season's team led by John Groce and all of his incoming recruits?

(Since you're an it's all about the players kind of guy, it has to be worse than this season, right?)

iluvrt on March 19 @ 03:53 PM CDT

Why are you butthurt that Groce is gone?

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:50 AM CDT

They were a bad team. And look at what Beilein did with that team!

larue on March 19 @ 12:06 PM CDT

Saw in one of the articles about Underwood that Beilein took a visit to see what Underwood was doing with his offense. That seems like a pretty good sign.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 07:16 AM CDT

Generate offense before the other team can set up their defense.

Yes. How frequently Illini guards walked the ball up the court under Groce allowing the opposing team's defense to get set was frustrating.

rml on March 19 @ 02:34 AM CDT

I'm so giddy that I finally subscribed!

HailToTheOrange on March 19 @ 06:37 AM CDT

I don't want to rain on our parade. I see the potential/reason for excitement....and am cautiously optimistic (but will of course reserve judgement until we've seen him in an orange blazer long enough to gauge his competency).

That said, anyone else a little surprised by an $18/6 deal? By my quick googled research this would make him the 8th highest paid coach in the country. ( Look, I'm all for ponying up for quality coaching. It's absolutely critical if you want to compete year in, year out. But just strikes me as a pretty fat offer for someone who spent one season at a power 5 conference.

Second, I gotta say I'm a little concerned about a one-and-done coach. I'm not sure if there's any credence to the rumors about Brad not being happy w/ the AD at Ok St....that he was promised a re-evaluation of his comp if he got results. But if there just sits a little funny w/ me.

Of course this is a business at the end of the day. But he committed to a deal. If it was a "bad" deal in his opinion to begin with, why did he sign? Surely his past success could have landed him a deal he was stoked about? Is this another ladder climber? is $18/6 enough to make us the top rung of the ladder? Cuz there's clearly no reason for him to be loyal to us... That's one of the reasons I love JW so much. Yes, he's well-spoken, charismatic, intelligent...and I think he's got what it takes to run a successful athletic department. But longevity / commitment counts (see Kruger, Self). And he's got that in spades b/c of his history w/ the Illini. Not that we were going to find that in a qualified coaching prospect...but it's not super great to questions someone's motivations when they're on their way in the front door.

Like I said, still staying (mostly positive) but I'm not giddy.

Here's to being giddy a year from now (AND BEYOND).

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 06:48 AM CDT

Their AD admitted to mishandling the situation. BU signed a 5-year contract but also had verbal assurance it would be renegotiated if he won. The AD was so gun shy after having to eat $7.5 million on the Ford contract that he went cheap/conservative and lost. OSU fans are primarily upset with their AD, not BU, which should tell you something.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 06:51 AM CDT

As for whether we overpaid, compare with other offers this year. You almost always overpay a bit to steal a guy from another P5 program. But given the market, I'm fine with overpaying by $0.5 million/yr to get the guy we want.

HailToTheOrange on March 19 @ 07:09 AM CDT

Fair enough. At the end of the day I'd rather have to compete to retain someone on a cash basis than prestige. We can always pony up if it's worth it. We can't conjure up the pedigree of a top 10 program...which is ultimately why Self left (and would have left even if we were paying him over market at the time).

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:14 AM CDT

I'd also rather pay up to retain someone who is proven successful. But that wasn't an option for this search. There were few obvious candidates for this search. You accept that reality and do what is necessary to make a quality hire. And the bottom line is that with B1G money we can afford it.

As to whether we can become a top 10 program, the answer is yes. We lost Self to a top 3 program in his backyard. We were a top 10 program at the time, and there is no reason (facilities, recruiting base, fan support, $) we can't get back there again. Getting into blue blood territory (KU, UK, Duke) is really tough. But there is no fundamental reason we can't reach MSU status. Just hire a good coach.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:22 AM CDT

  • Keatts: $2.2 million/year, 6 years
  • Martin: $3.0 million/year 7 years
  • Underwood: $3.0 million/year, 6 years

Watch the salaries for other P5 hires this year, and you will see that we didn't overpay by much. With the TV contracts, salaries are escalating.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 09:09 AM CDT

Underwood and Holder had preliminary discussions a few weeks ago, but an OSU source said that Underwood discovered that both Illinois and Missouri were interested in talking, giving him more negotiating leverage.

Last Monday, the day after the Cowboys were assigned to Indianapolis for a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Michigan, Holder and Underwood met. The OSU source said Holder offered $2.2 million per year and would get Underwood to $3 million after five seasons. The Big 12 average is $2.9 million for a head coach. But Underwood said he wanted $2.9 million now and would prefer $3 million.

Travis Ford, fired a year ago after eight seasons as OSU's coach, was making $2.4 million a year, the residual of a 10-year contract he signed after his first season, in which the Cowboys made the NCAA Tournament and beat Tennessee in a first-round game.

So in a nutshell, the OSU AD took a tough negotiating stance with a guy he needed to retain ($2.2 million is not going rate). Whitman put out back door feelers before letting Groce go. Underwood probably saw Illinois as a better situation regardless, and just said f* it I'm moving to Illinois.

And we can see why Whitman ponied up $3 million/year. Any hard bargaining would have killed the deal.

The Oklahoman

dsboyce on March 19 @ 06:32 PM CDT

If a top tier basketball program steals him from us in a few years, that will mean things have gone pretty well and he'd be leaving the Illini in great shape. I can live with that risk.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 08:36 AM CDT

Lovie Smith, Chris Tamas, Brad Underwood

Three Whitman hires and there is no clear pattern or model. (Unlike Thomas who always went with the mid-major head coach having the best resume.) He just looks for the best available coach, moves decisively and closes the deal.

Sweetchuck13 on March 19 @ 09:00 AM CDT

I love this hire. Think he's going to be great, and I love the power move of stealing him from another power 5 school after only one year. Whitman knows how to compete in the big-boy world of college athletics.

The quotes I've seen from Henson and Kruger about his coaching ability, his analytic mindset (scoring in the first 7 seconds), and his ability to adapt his scheme to the personnel he has all sound outstanding, and like a refreshing change after the last 5 years (and really the last several years of Weber too).

My prediction is not only will we have a better record and make the tourney next year, but I bet we're not even on the bubble - but safely in and just waiting for our seed on Selection Sunday.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 12:49 PM CDT

Supinie: Hoops insiders love Underwood hire
John Supinie, Columnist
Orange and Blue NewsMar 18, 2017, 7:34 PM

Underwood is a former mid-major coach who dominated his league, which says something. Unlike his predecessor, Underwood isn’t a flash in the pan. He built the best team in the conference.

“That says something to me rather than just getting hot in the conference tournament,’’ Henricksen said.

In contrast, John Groce was 34-30 in the MAC, won the conference tournament twice after failing to finish better than third in the regular season, then jumped to Illinois. He failed to build a steady winner. Meanwhile, Underwood is just the opposite, leading his teams to the NCAA Tournament in all four years as a head coach.

Groundhogday on March 20 @ 10:29 AM CDT

When discussing the value of OSU basketball on campus, the source said, Holder told Underwood he was asking for Final Four-type money and that the Cowboys currently are on a level of Iowa State, Texas Tech and Kansas State in the Big 12.

“He was going to Illinois the moment Holder said that to him,” the source said. “What he was looking for, Holder's vision for the program, ‘I believe you can get us up to KU and Bill Self and blah-blah,' and that just wasn't what he heard.”

Then Illinois came calling, and athletic director Josh Whitman sold Underwood on how much the Illini value basketball, saying Illinois wants to have the top program in the nation. “What I just heard from my boss,” Underwood told the source, “we want a program about equal to Iowa State, Texas Tech and Kansas State.”


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