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Time for new blood at top of Illinois basketball program

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Someone once said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If that is true, then consider the Illinois athletics department completely insane these days.

Well, that is if they actually stick with John Groce as the men’s basketball head coach. Illinois did what Illinois seemingly always does under Groce — get blown out in the Big Ten tournament and await their fate in the NIT. This year it was a 20-point loss to Michigan in the second round of the tournament that sent the Illini back from Washington, D.C. early.

It is hard not to notice a disturbing pattern with Groce’s team. After all, his Illini teams have made just one NCAA tournament appearance and that happened in his first season in Champaign.

Since that 23-win season, the Illini have never topped 20 victories again and have lost an average of 15.2 games over the last four years.

Anyway you slice it, that isn’t good at a program like Illinois.

Oh, and there’s the fact that Groce is the only head coach since Gene Bartow to have a losing record in Big Ten play. Bartow lasted just two seasons (1974-75), while Groce has put together a dismal 37-53 (.411) record.

The last four coaches? They won at a .528 percentage clip. Sure, some of that winning was done courtesy of coaches willing to play fast and loose with the NCAA rulebook. Groce certainly isn’t one to do that.

However, there are plenty of coaches who do things the right way in recruiting and within the NCAA rulebook and are also winning basketball games. Being a nice guy only gets you so far.

That brings us to the biggest issue for the Illini basketball program and the administration in general. Few seem to have their pulse on the real problem at hand, while excusing away losing basketball at one of the most proud programs in the country.

It is hard to not notice the “next year will be different” mentality amongst some in the administration and fanbase. Excuses were made for the 2013-14 season as the program saw so many transfers in and out and lost a lot of talent from the NCAA tournament team.

The next season was supposed to be different, but it wasn’t as the Illini once again went to the NIT tournament. No doubt injuries like the torn ACL for Tracy Abrams, the broken hand for Rayvonte Rice and a retinal tear for Aaron Cosby played a role.

So, the 2015-16 season was supposed to be different. Except that it wasn’t and the two classes full of great recruiting talent have had plenty of opportunities to succeed.

Except that they haven’t been able to do that as a team and the 2015-16 season saw Abrams out injured for the year again. Other players suffered injuries too and Groce was given one more year to put it all together.

2016-17 was going to be the year for the Illini…except that didn’t happen. The Illini couldn’t even get to .500, even in a bunched up Big Ten this year. That alone should be all athletic director Josh Whitman needs to know about Groce’s program.

The reality is Groce has been given more time than any coach in America to deliver a consistent winner. He also has been blessed with plenty of talent from the recruiting trail.

All the tools to succeed have been in place. It is time for the excuses and “wait until next year” mentality to stop.

Groce may be a great guy, but if you can’t be a consistent winner at Illinois, you’re doing it wrong.

Now we’ll see if the administration can right that wrong or if it will continue to stick its head in the sand.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Illini Basketball

Mark Smith’s one-and-done highlights long road ahead for Illini basketball

Mark Smith’s impending transfer highlights need for Illini to not rest on one big recruit as Underwood hopes to rebuild program.

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On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.

While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.

As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.

What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.

The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.

Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.

While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.

Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.

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WATCH: Brad Underwood speaks for 1st time as Illini head coach

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The University of Illinois took less than one day to get their man, as Brad Underwood bolted from Oklahoma State a day after his now-ex team was ousted from the NCAA tournament.

Underwood won’t formally be introduced until a noon CT press conference on Monday, but he was already in Champaign on Saturday. That meant his first official interview took place as well.

It was all caught on camera and here is what Underwood and Josh Whitman had to say regarding the hire.

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Basketball

Whitman wastes little time, picks Brad Underwood to head Illini basketball program

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Brad Underwood was coaching the Oklahoma State Cowboys just about this time yesterday. Fast forward 24 hours and Josh Whitman got his next head coach thanks to the Pokes loss to Michigan.

According to reports, Underwood has agreed to terms to become the next head coach at the University of Illinois.

“I am excited to welcome Brad Underwood, his wife Susan, and their three children to the Fighting Illini family,” Whitman said in a press release. “In searching for a new coach, we were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball.

“Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness. They have a tremendous energy that I believe will ignite the Orange Krush and our fans to once again make State Farm Center one of the most intimidating venues in all of college basketball.”

Underwood has a long reputation of building quality programs. He took Stephen F. Austin to three straight NCAA tournaments before taking the Oklahoma State job this past year.

So, why leave the Pokes after just one season? It appears his ties to the state of Illinois were a huge factor in this quick of a jump.

“Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Underwood said. “The players, fans and administration at Oklahoma State have been absolutely incredible, and I want to thank them for the support they’ve given me and my family over the last year. However, during my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation.”

Underwood was an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992-2003 before taking his second head coaching gig at Daytona Beach Community College.

There are also reports of a strained relationship between Underwood and Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder.

Underwood will be introduced to the media on Monday at noon CT and we will have live coverage.

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Illini Basketball

Matt Bollant let go as head of Illini women’s basketball program

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Matt Bollant was once one of the hottest names in women’s basketball coaching circles. After leading an NAIA powerhouse, he took the Green Bay Phoenix to new height too.

That reputation made him a hot commodity to major programs looking to turn things around. Instead, the hire was nothing but a mess for the Illinois Fighting Illini and the mess was finally cleaned up by athletic director Josh Whitman on Tuesday afternoon.

“I would like to thank Matt Bollant and his staff for their many contributions to Illinois Basketball during the last five years,” Whitman said in a statement released by the athletic department. “They have faced great adversity, both on and off the court, yet have greeted every day with unyielding optimism and unmatched effort. They have maintained the well-being and personal growth of the student-athletes under their charge as their foremost priority and have been exceptional ambassadors for Illinois Athletics in our community and in basketball circles across the country.”

Still, Bollant followed the same path as his men’s counterpart and simply couldn’t get the program to become a consistent winner on the court. Bollant leaves the program having averaged just 12 wins per season. He leaves the program having gone 61-94 overall and 22-62 in Big Ten play. 

The first season in Champaign was promising, as the Illini finished fifth in the Big Ten and made it to the WNIT tournament. Illinois won 19 games that season and also reached the quarterfinals of the WNIT.

However, there was no progress made and the Illini failed to reach the postseason for the next four years straight. Illinois hit rock bottom this season, finishing just 9-22 overall and 3-13 in Big Ten play.

Additionally, there were messy allegations by ex-players about language and coaching techniques. Some also alleged racial favoritism on the team.

That clearly wasn’t good enough for Whitman and he noted that in his statement to the public.

“Without question, the program is in a better place today than it was when they arrived,” said Whitman. “Our expectations for women’s basketball, however, match those that we have for many of our other sport programs: to compete at the highest level, year in and year out. I am excited to embrace a future for Illinois Women’s Basketball where we realize the program’s full – and virtually unlimited – potential.”

Bollant had one year left on his deal and the press release notes that he will receive his full $450,000 salary per the terms of his contract.

It will be interesting to see the direction Whitman takes with this hire, but it will be a national search to say the least.

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