There's plenty of movement in John Groce's Illinois basketball program. Is it a good sign or bad? Ask N-G beat writer Paul Klee what it all means as he's chatting Thursday at 12:45 p.m.
Afternoon everyone. Basketball writer Paul Klee joining you for another chat. Plenty to discuss today. We'll move quickly to get to as many questions as possible. Talked to a lot of people the past few days - hopefully we can fill in some of the gray area you're wondering about. Be here for about an hour before joining John Groce and Co. in Bloomington. Fire away. Klee
So was Groce blindsided with Chew's departure? Guessing he would not have been part of the Caravan if this was in the works. Which direction does Groce go now? I assume it is more difficult filling a lead assistant position this late in the process as opposed to a third assistant position.
Jeff- Yes, the Illinois staff was stunned with the Isaac Chew development. There was a meeting with Chew on Tuesday morning at the DIA and he was on one of Marquette's private planes to Milwaukee at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday night. Talked to him at length Tuesday. He was concerned with the perception of the move. You won't know for a while - years maybe, depending how Illinois' recruiting shakes out - if this move hurt Illinois. Right now it's more of a blow in terms of perception.
John Groce will take his time with this final hire. I wouldn't expect any movement for a few weeks. There's no hurry. The July evaluation period is one month away, and the staff has enough pieces in place to handle summer workouts with the current players. If you need a reference point, consider the Webster-Howard transition back in '07. That was a case where an assistant left in August - and it worked out just fine for all sides. Klee
Can you tell us what the exact reason was for Coach Chew's decision to take the Marquette job? Was it more money, more responsibility, or both?
Hi Efrem- A little of both. Consider, too, that Buzz Williams could sell Isaac Chew on his goal of becoming a head coach sooner rather than later. His top assistant - Tony Benford - recently was hired as the head coach North Texas. And Tony had that dream - he was also involved with the SIU job and several others. So there was tangible evidence Williams could present to Chew. Money was a factor. This was a considerable compensation package. And I mean, considerable. As I reported Tuesday, Illinois made a counter-offer, but it didn't touch Marquette's offer, and I'm not sure there's enough evidence it would be worth shelling out a comparable package. We'll know in a few years. I enjoyed Isaac Chew and thought he would've been an asset to Illinois basketball. He knows people. He also has a seafood fetish and enjoyed the oysters at Carmon's and the sushi at Kofusion, but that's neither here or there. Another factor: Marquette is on more stable footing to win sooner than Illinois. It's a program that has won more lately (back-to-back Sweet 16s). There's a reason Buzz Williams is one of the top-10 highest-paid coaches in college basketball. This won't be popular, but it's true - Illinois is in the midst of what is probably a 2-3 year rebuilding project at minimum. Klee
I was wondering which '11 freshman you think will step up and improve the most next year.
Frosh- I'd love to see big Nnanna Egwu make a leap. He cares about it. And I think Dustin Ford will be very good for his development. In terms of numbers, I expect it would be him, because the staff is leaning on the big guy in the frontcourt. But we'll see. He has a ways to go, always did. Despite watching these players... and talking to them... and talking to coaches... those things are awfully hard to predict in May. I would say the two most important 2011 guys would be Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu - in part because there isn't an established player behind them in the rotation. That's a dream situation for a rising sophomore when you think about. They are all but guaranteed to play big minutes. That's a sweet gig. Klee
With the new coaching staff, do you anticipate any changes in non-conference scheduling in favor of in-state teams rather than miscellaneous directional schools from other states?
Anonymous- In terms of scheduling changes, you will see more home games on future schedules. I believe the 2012-13 number is seven. That's not enough when you've got games in St. Louis, Maui (three), Honolulu, Chicago and Spokane. That is one thing I know Groce would change - if he could. No, I don't expect they will play play Illinois State or SIU or the like unless it's in a tournament format. Illinois has too much to lose and too little to gain. Would I like to see it? Yes. But I can understand why we won't. Their approach to scheduling will be similar to Ohio State's approach. Klee
So with James no longer committed does that mean we are almost certainly going after the transfer from ISU? If Groce's offensive is predicated on point guards, it sure seems we are going the wrong way on point guard numbers?
As with me trusting Theo to put together the Cubs roster, I am trusting Groce on this one too. It does seem that the journey is a circuitious one.
Anonymous- Illinois already "certainly" was pursuing Nic Moore. There was a previous relationship with the Indiana product from their time at Ohio, and he's better than what you had in the pipeline. I believe he has visited Purdue. So we'll see where that goes. I understand the concern out there. But if you don't believe a point guard is the right guy to run the team - don't take him. And this staff felt it could find an option that better fits how they want to play. This was an Illinois decision. On some level, I go back to Demetri McCamey on this one. All of the former staff wasn't completely sold he was the right guy when they took him. And I believe that was the impetus for much of the public criticisms of McCamey, who ranks second alltime in career assists while playing without all-stars around him. This is a tricky subject, too. I expect Jalen James will have a productive college career - at the right level. Illinois Wolves director Mike Mullins put it best when he told me last night: "I truthfully believe this is a win-win for Jalen and for Illinois." I agree 100 percent, wholeheartedly, with all that. We'll know in a few years if this was the right decision. I expect it will be. Klee
How much does the move by Chew hurt the program? Doesn't it send the message that Marquette is a more desirable program than U of I. Wasn't he suppose to be the new Jerrance Howard, especially in the Chicago area? Had he developed a close relationship with any of the key recruits such as Nunn , Parker, Okafor or Alexander?
Dave- Thanks for writing in. I'll go in order. To answer your first question, you won't know for a while. If Chew tears it up at Marquette and Illinois continues its stagnant state of the past 5-6 seasons, it hurt. If John Groce and his new staff catch fire, it didn't. Hard to say right now. In the short term, Indian Hills CC standout Jameel McKay was scheduled for a campus visit to Illinois on Tuesday or Wednesday. Illinois now is on the outside looking in with McKay's recruitment. To answer your second question, it depends on the guy. For Isaac Chew, Marquette and the compensation package made it a more desirable program. Not hard to see why. What Buzz wants, Buzz usually gets, and Marquette will continue to win at a high level as long as he's there. Yes, Chew was brought in to recruit Chicago, as well as other areas. He has connections there with the Fire, etc. As for your final question, he's worked on Simeon's players, but it was John Groce and Jamall Walker that met with Rob Smith. Of the four players you mentioned, Illinois' realistic chances are best with Kendrick Nunn. The others are - and always were - longshots for Illinois. There is a good relationship with big Cliff Alexander, and I suppose you could make up ground there, but it will be tough. Michigan State is in there strong. And I've said this before, but I expect it's a wrap if Kentucky gets involved. John Calipari watched Alexander in Merrilville in April. Hope that answers all of the questions. Klee
Hello Mr. Klee, can you briefly discuss how the Ohio basketball banquet went last week? I know that Coach Groce and some of his staff were in attendance. Most importantly, what color tie did Coach Groce wear? Hopefully, he did not wear a green one. ;)
Mario- You know, I asked him about the banquet, but I didn't ask about his tie. Maybe I'll ask him today. He said the banquet was tremendous and he enjoyed a warm reception from the players. The 2011-12 season was the finest in the history of the program - single-season record for wins, Sweet 16 appearance, an OT away from the Elite Eight - so the Bobcats had plenty to celebrate. I believe there were 500-600 fans in attendance, and the school requested that John Groce talk for about 15 minutes. John and Allison Groce also had dinner with new coach Jim Christian and his wife. The Groces gave them some ideas on living in Athens, good babysitters, where to eat, the basics. Class move on their part. The Groce family has strong feelings about Athens and the Ohio University community. Reminds me a bit of Bruce Weber's ties to the southern part of this state from his time with the Salukis. That Ohio squad should be very good again in 2012-13. It returns 100 percent of its production from the NCAA tournament. Klee
What recruits from the class of 2013 will be linked to Illinois in the coming weeks (in terms of having a serious chance at committing)?
Also, where will the focus of the coaching staff be in the next few weeks: recruiting trail, skill development, booster relations for the Assembly Hall facelift?
Love seeing you at Esquire! I have to recommend the pork chop sammich.
Thanks for the chats!
Denny- Say hi next time. I often go with a polish sausage and $1.50 PBR. To answer your question, all of the above. First, John Groce will take a vacation starting Saturday. Catch his breath. The staff will begin summer workouts soon after June 11 - the first day of the second summer session. Skill development again will be the priority. You'll see more team stuff in the fall. Of the 2013 prospects, there are several, but every day that Demetrius Jackson doesn't commit to Michigan State/Notre Dame is a ray of hope for Illinois. Illinois fans should hope Michigan State tires of the chase and hunts down another PG prospect. He's not a kid that's enamored with the recruiting process. The Illini are in there and working it hard. There is a positive relationship there - and Jackson is a top target. On a related not, I expect you will see some movement on Keita Bates-Diop, perhaps in terms of a scholarship offer, in the near future. He's a 2014 prospect, though. Hope that helps. Klee
Good afternoon Mr. Klee
Does the release or parting of ways with former committ Jalen James coincide with the recruitment of Kendrick Nunn? And how is Myers draft workouts going. Your doing a great job and always look forward to your updates. Willz
Willz- Thanks. To answer your question, there is no recruiting connection between Kendrick Nunn and Jalen James. Different AAU programs, different coaches, no connection. Meyers Leonard worked out for the Blazers the other day. When he's not preparing for the draft - he was between around 250-255 pounds last week - modeling clothes or trying on a new pair of Chuck Taylors, he might be attending a Mets game. He's living in New York. On a related note, I have a thing for mock drafts. So when I talk to NBA scouts I always ask their opinion on those projections. Scouts seem to have a higher opinion of Meyers than the mock drafts. I read some of these drafts and routinely say, "I would take Meyers over a dozen of these guys." Last night while watching Heat-Celtics, I tried naming 10 guys I would take ahead of Meyers - and I couldn't do it. He would be among the top 7-8 guys I'd take. I guess when you've seen him do the things he can do on a daily basis, it alters your opinion. I just think he's projected too low. Same with Thomas Robinson. But I don't know Thomas Robinson. Klee
Paul is there any news regarding the Illinois BB program. Things have been quiet for awhile?
Jam- There have been one or two things to write about this offseason, yes. Thanks for writing in. Klee
How or where do you see Langford, Djimde and Henry fitting in Grose,s scheme? Since you see the players and coaches practice I assume you have an opinion about these three. Also, since I,m in Ohio you are my sanity safety net. Thanks!
Lost- Of the three you mentioned, Myke Henry is most prepared to contribute next season. The others have a ways to go. Henry could be a key player in '12-13 - this staff appreciates his scoring ability. Myke readily admits he needs work on the defensive end. Here's hoping he contributes early - these Illini need all the bench help they can get. Klee
Who do you think are the top targets to fill Chew's assistant position? I would think Deon Thomas would be great candidate seeing as we need a big man coach and I feel Simeon's Smith could hopefully pull the reins of Chicago recruiting in our favor. Your thoughts?
Anonymous- To answer your question, I don't expect either will be considered. That isn't me saying they should or shouldn't be - just saying I don't expect they will be. Deon, who interviewed with Illinois for an administrative job, would've been a positive addition for the previous staff. They should have considered a move in that direction. I've said before - and Rob Smith has a legendary resume on the high school scene - I don't believe hiring a Chicago prep or AAU coach helps you in Chicago. Coach Rob has beaten his Chicago rivals like a drum on the court. Hire a Chicago coach, and his peers wonder, Why not me? So I don't think you automatically get those players. I've asked him about it. He knows that could create some animosity. He's got a great gig. He wants to coach at the college level - but it would have to be the perfect situation to leave Simeon. Here's a name that I would, at least, consider: Daniyal Robinson. Rock Island native, played at Illinois State, recruited the Big 12 at Iowa State and now is an assistant at the University of Houston. His name came recommended to me by three different coaches from three different leagues. So his peers have a high opinion of his work. And there will be other names that surface. And like I said earlier, John Groce won't rush the process simply to get another body in the basketball office. Hope that helps. Klee
How do you think the staff is handling the PR hits of the past week with Chew's departure and James no longer wanted by the staff? Seems like the staff could use some good news soon.
THE RECENT DEFECTIONS OF CHEW AND JAMES SEEMS TO PRESENT REAL PROBLEMS FOR COACH GROCE AND THE ILLINI HOOPS PROGRAM. THIS TEAM IS VERY THIN ON TOP TALENT AND IT IS EVIDENT BY THEIR PERFORMANCE LAST YEAR AND WEAK RECRUITING. I HAVE REAL CONCERNS ABOUT THE DIRECTION OF THIS PROGRAM ATTRACTING TALENTED RECRUITS AND ASSISTANT COACHES. AM I THE ONLY PERSON WHO HAS THESE CONCERNS?
When will we hear JG is getting a major recruit? I'm already tired of him losing recruits and recruiting Missouri Valley conference players. I expected big things from him and so far out of the gate I must say I'm dissappointed, between landing mid major guys and losing his top recruiting assistant this is getting embarrassing.
All- Just to respond, I do think some patience is in order. And no matter what I write here, it won't be popular. This is probably a three-year rebuilding project to be a Big Ten contender again. Illinois missed three of the past five NCAA tournaments, lost 12 of 14 games to close last season and wasn't invited to the two major postseason tournaments for a reason. And now it lost more talent (Meyers Leonard) than it added. None of the returning players were first- or second-team All-Big Ten. I think sometimes it's easy for fans to forget just how bad Illinois was last season. There was roughly a six-week stretch where it was the worst team in the Big Ten. That doesn't mean Illinois can't improve - I expect individual players will have their best seasons, namely Brandon Paul - but there is little evidence to expect an upper-half finish. Spring workouts and pickup games didn't change my mind on that. Recruiting rankings don't always equate to basketball talent. Some people use recruiting rankings to gauge talent; I go by what I see on a daily basis. And the pieces have to fit. It's only been two months for John Groce and his staff. But this is why the job had some would-be candidates scared to get involved. It is going to take time, and after the past half-decade, patience is thin. I should say that I don't mind that. You should have high expectations for Illinois basketball. To me, this isn't a reflection of Illinois basketball on a historical level but on a recent level. The rebuild is going to take time. Hope that helps - going quickly here. Klee
I do not think the Celtics will come back to beat the Heat; on the other hand, I think the Thunder are far from finished. Who do you think has a better chance to beat Miami? The Spurs or the Thunder?
Hi Jack- Over the past two months, the Spurs are the best team I've seen in several years. This is a juggernaut right now. I don't expect anyone can touch them. The Heat probably would have the best chance, but that, to me, is still a five-game series, at most. Could be wrong. And thanks for mixing it up here. Klee
Going to wrap this up. Quality, informative chat today - thanks to your questions. We'll have a full page of basketball coverage in Sunday's News-Gazette. Plenty from John Groce - and spent some time with new EIU coach Jay Spoonhour. And it's going to be a different place around the basketball facility without longtime athletic trainer Al Martindale. Hope you read the story on his career from last weekend on HQ. I'll be on with Steve Kelly's SportsTalk from 5-6 p.m. Friday if you have more questions. Klee