Analyzing the Illinois and Tulsa Coaching Hires – Exciting New FitsPosted by EJacoby on March 29th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
More coaching vacancies continue to get filled across the country, as it became official on Thursday that Ohio head coach John Groce was hired for Illinois’ coaching vacancy and Kansas assistant Danny Manning agreed to become the new head coach at Tulsa. The Illini coaching search had been a major news story of the past few weeks, but Tulsa’s job had also been open for quite some time since earlier this month. Both hires come as somewhat of a surprise and make for exciting new eras for the Fighting Illini and Golden Hurricane programs. Here’s a look at how each coach might fit in.
Bruce Weber experienced a tragic downfall at Illinois during this past season that included ugly performances by the team during Big Ten play and painful press conferences filled with admissions of poor coaching tactics. What started off as a perfect fit for Weber, a man who brought the Illini to the National Championship game in his second season, never developed into a comfortable pairing. Weber was unable to bring in the top recruits that the previous Bill Self regime had (whose players were the ones that Weber coached to the Final Four), and even when some big names eventually came to the program, Weber never developed their talents as expected. As a result, a program that has brought in a total of nine RSCI top-80 recruits since 2009 just completed a terribly disappointing 17-15 campaign, and Weber is long gone.
Bringing in Groce certainly is not the big name that some people were expecting when this job became free. CBS and Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis both stated that Illinois is a top 10 coaching job, and some other media members echoed that belief. But perhaps the job has lost a bit of its luster in recent years, as several top candidates decided to pass up on the opportunity to stay at their current mid-major programs, including Shaka Smart of VCU and Brad Stevens at Butler. It took Ohio’s magical run to the Sweet Sixteen before Groce came into the picture, and while he may not have been the school’s first target, he should be a great fit in Champaign.
Groce didn’t put together a spectacular resume at Ohio, where he went 85-56 in four seasons, but he was able to bring in several strong recruits, most notably the highly-touted D.J. Cooper who helped lead this team to great heights this season. After watching the way Groce got his team to buy in defensively and play to their abilities to finish this season with a Sweet Sixteen appearance, Groce’s stock is high. Many of the top coaches in college basketball became the best in the business directly after a run at a mid-major program, and Illinois hopes Groce is the next to do so. It’ll start with bringing in top talent from the Chicago area, something Illinois has been unable to do recently, and then having them buy in to a system that is conducive to winning in the rugged Big Ten.
Doug Wojcik did a decent job with the Tulsa program in seven years, compiling a 140-92 record that included four consecutive 20-win seasons and a 67-46 record in Conference USA play. But Wojcik failed to reach the NCAA Tournament once, something that had become the norm for the Golden Hurricane in the past. We’re quick to forget that this team was one of the great low-seed postseason successes of the past two decades. During a 10-year stretch from 1994 until 2003, Tulsa qualified for eight NCAA Tournaments and compiled 11 wins in the Big Dance (!), never once seeded any higher than #5. This team made it to the Sweet Sixteen as a #12 seed and the Elite Eight as a #7. Nobody wanted to see Tulsa in their bracket come tournament time.
But things changed for the Hurricane program, which has not seen any postseason success as part of C-USA in the past nine years. To inject some life back into the program, Danny Manning comes in as one of the biggest names in assistant coaching across Division I. Manning, of course, was one of the top college players of all-time in his playing days for Kansas, and he’s been a top assistant for Bill Self since 2007 after he completed his long career in the NBA. Manning is known for his development of post players, as he’s helped turn guys like Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, and Jeff Withey into forces in the paint. Withey immediately jumps out as a guy who had no offensive skills heading into this season but has developed into a much stronger and respectable player at the rim on offense. Manning deserves tons of credit for the work he’s done at KU.
The question will be whether or not Manning has the well-rounded skills to lead a full group of young players, both on and off court, instead of just honing in on player development. There’s no reason to be anything but optimistic if you’re a Tulsa fan, as Manning has the pedigree of a former star and has spent the past five years learning from one of the best head coaches in the business. Manning will inherit a team that loses two of its top big men but keeps four of its five overall leading scorers. Tulsa should be competitive again next season at which point the new coach can immediately start to implement a fresh culture and start recruiting the kinds of players he feels can develop in Conference USA. Expect plenty of young bigs on the way for the Hurricane.