The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team program currently find themselves in a rough patch. The Illini haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. And after this season’s 19-14 campaign, head basketball coach John Groce was fired. In five years in Champaign, Groce compiled a record of 95-74, while he was only 37-53 in the Big Ten Conference. Illinois had one NCAA Tournament appearance under Groce and they never finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten. Overall it’s been a struggle for the Fighting Illini as since they made the NCAA Title Game in 2005, they’ve been unable to at least make the Sweet 16. And for the next head basketball coach in Champaign, his main focus must be recruiting.
Of the Illinois team this season, 11 players were from the State of Illinois. However the Illini have struggled to keep the top talent home in recent years.
The past few years have seen Illinois lose out on Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor who each committed to playing for the Duke Blue Devils of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Parker and Okafor were both from Chicago, but they chose Duke since playing for Mike Krzyzewski would give them the better chance of reaching their ultimate goal which was to play in the NBA. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last McDonald’s All-American who committed to play basketball for the Illini in forward Jereme Richmond. However after just one year with the Fighting Illini, Richmond declared for the NBA Draft. And after Richmond went undrafted, legal troubles derailed his once promising basketball career. The last six Mr. Basketball Award winners from the State of Illinois have elected to play for schools in other conferences, while since 2000, the Illini have only had three players win this award and play for them as being in Champaign isn’t one of their top priorities.
Whether or not the Illinois likes it, they must accept the fact that they are an afterthought in the Big Ten as you have to go back to 2011 to find the last time that they were able to finish better than seventh in the conference standings. The Illini are second-class citizens to the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Maryland Terrapins, and Michigan Wolverines who have nationally recognized programs that are always pushing for the top spot in the Big Ten. And the cherry on the top is that the Fighting Illini’s in-state rival in the Northwestern Wildcats are set to make their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament this week.
The State Farm Center which is the Illini’s home court recently underwent renovation as a way to spark recruiting. However the Illini have still been unable to keep up with the top teams that the Big Ten has to offer.
For Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, his next head coach must be someone that is going to be able to ward off the Michigan State’s, Duke’s, and Kentucky Wildcats of the college basketball world in order to get the top high school basketball players from the Windy City to make the short trek to Champaign as opposed to catching a flight to another part of the country.
Some names that could be thrown around in the head coaching search for Illinois are Dayton Flyers head basketball coach Archie Miller, Illinois State Redbirds head basketball coach Dan Muller, Butler Bulldogs head basketball coach Chris Holtmann, and Wichita State Shockers head basketball coach Gregg Marshall.
Miller has compiled a record of 140-62 in six years at Dayton, and he has the Flyers making their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. In recent years schools from Power Conferences have attempted to lure Miller away from Dayton to no avail, and I am not sure if Illinois would be any different should they want him.
Muller seems more likely for Illinois to get rather than Miller after he had the Redbirds on the cusp of making their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. Illinois State pushed Wichita State for the top spot in the Missouri Valley Conference and they were the only team to defeat the Shockers within the conference. However a weak strength of schedule hurt Illinois State’s effort to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. And after losing to the Shockers in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Final, Muller could be ready to take over a bigger program where he would not have that problem.
There’s no pressure for Holtmann at Butler as he has a team that can make the Sweet 16. But the fact that Butler was able to defeat the Villanova Wildcats twice this season has raised his profile in college basketball circles which could also make him attractive to Illinois.
And it would be a long shot for Marshall to leave Wichita State as he is 260-89 in ten years there, along with having a Final Four appearance on his resume. Like all of the other head coaches mentioned, there isn’t any pressure on Marshall at his current job, and he would be giving up security in order to get into the pressure cooker of the Big Ten.
You also cannot rule out Jamall Walker who is currently serving as the interim head basketball coach at Illinois while they participate in the National Invitation Tournament. And a run to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals in the tournament could get Walker some support to get the full-time job in Champaign.
It is going to be very interesting to see what direction that Illinois will go in with their next hire. But for Whitman he has a chance to find someone that will allow his program to compete in the Big Ten, while also appeasing the alumni in Champaign.