Illinois' men's basketball coach thinks he has enough talent to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
You’ve witnessed it in a dozen old Westerns ... those gritty fellows holding down a besieged fort until ... wait now, listen ... isn’t that a bugler leading troops to the rescue?
John Groce and his assistants are those gritty fellows. They’re holding the fort as they shake heaven and earth for help ahead of a Big Ten basketball season that will find them outnumbered at the top and squeezed from the bottom. You won’t hear them say it, but the immediate task is to hang on until the incoming freshmen have time to develop, to stay relevant until Aaron Cosby is joined by the next recruiting infusion, to somehow keep the arrows pointing in the same direction they were at the end of this season.
This is a tall order as they build around senior Joseph Bertrand and juniors Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Myke Henry.
Latest addition is Illinois State’s 6-foot-7 Jon Ekey, who hopes to assume Tyler Griffey’s role as a perimeter-shooting forward. With the UI’s three most prolific (and often erratic) three-point shooters gone, Ekey fills a need. He will be the fifth transfer in three seasons as the Illini, showing a three-year 23-31 conference record, repeatedly have sought to fill holes on the run.
Groce still has another spot for a fifth-year transfer and will work it to the limit. But, face it, this is a hard way to do business in a conference ruled by some of the nation’s best athletes and premier coaches.
Meanwhile, Michigan State continues to sweat out an undecided Adreian Payne (he has until April 28) while NBA hits already have diminished Indiana (Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo), Michigan (Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr.) and Ohio State (Deshaun Thomas). Those three teams have blue-chippers on the way and will continue to excel, but they won’t be as imposing as before, and Wisconsin faces the task of replacing a frontline lost to graduation. So, the first division will offer easier, but still difficult, access while the teams that finished behind Illinois generally will be stronger.
What to make of Mav?
Next falls into the mystery category.
The 4,000-member Ohio Coaches Association voted incoming UI center Maverick Morgan the state’s Player of the Year. The 6-10 Morgan had a superb season, averaging 24.7 points and 9.6 rebounds for a strong Springboro quintet that competed in the state’s biggest division. He also was named to the AP all-state team. His team finished 20-5 and ranked 12th in Ohio.
And yet Morgan wasn’t rated in the nation’s Top 150 preps by ESPN, Rivals or Scout. Did the rating agencies, which emphasize summer play, not take into account Morgan’s high school performance? Was this an off year in this usually productive state?
According to Rivals’ Brad Sturdy, the answer to both questions is “yes.” Ohio was down, and prep performance was underplayed.
In revising its ratings this week, Rivals lists three Ohioans: No. 67 Marc Loving of Toledo (Ohio State), No. 111 Mark Donnal of Whitehouse (Michigan) and No. 117 Kevin Johnson of Cincinnati (Cincinnati). Morgan would have checked in between 151 and 160, according to Sturdy.
Conflicting ratings remind that these prep evaluations should not be taken as fact. For Morgan, it now boils down to how his game translates to the next level. And the same can be said for Malcolm Hill, another 25-point scorer who appeared much too productive at Belleville East to be ranked as low as No. 62.
Money well spent
By the time the ink is dry on today’s newspaper, a college coach will receive a raise in pay. That’s how fast it is happening.
And for those surprised by Groce’s $200,000 boost to $1.6 million, consider this: A few miles southeast of here, the red-hot basketball programs at Louisville and Kentucky are paying more than $5 million annually to Rick Pitino and John Calipari. At Kansas, Bill Self has reached that number. In the Big Ten, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Indiana’s Tom Crean and Ohio State’s Thad Matta are now over $3 million, and Purdue’s Matt Painter and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan are well past $2 million. And after finishing runner-up, watch for the contract of Michigan’s John Beilein to balloon well past $2 million.
Groce doesn’t rank in the league’s top half, but he’s doing extremely well for a coach with one year of Big Ten experience.
Understand now, these numbers are generalizations because we haven’t taken into account all the retention bonuses, incentive clauses and awards, not to mention cars and country club deals. For example, Groce received a $25,000 bonus for getting Illinois into the NCAA tournament. Beilein had a deal whereby he made $25,000 for each NCAA victory, and the Wolverines won five games. So while Burke’s fantastic shot against Kansas confirmed his Player of the Year status, it ultimately led to an extra $75,000 in Beilein’s bank account. At Iowa, Fran McCaffery missed out on $50,000 by not getting the Hawkeyes in the NCAA tournament, and another $50,000 slipped away when Iowa lost the NIT final against Baylor.
Is McCaffery jealous of Izzo? No, as he told the Des Moines Register, “He has raised the bar for all of us.”
Thus it has become Monopoly money. And we don’t dare guess where it’s headed. If broadcast income, now at $24 million for each Big Ten member, increases by $16 million or more in the next four to five years (as projected), that’s another pile of money received for doing absolutely nothing different. Put another way, if the annual nut for the Assembly Hall renovation is $9 million for 30 years, within a few years the DIA could handle the entire amount with the anticipated increase in media dollars ... if it didn’t have a list of other plans for the money.
Time for action
You can’t squeeze a size-12 foot into a size-7 shoe, and that’s how it looks for college underclassmen in the NBA’s June draft.
Only 30 players are assured of guaranteed (first-round) contracts. And more than 30 have signed up, not counting seniors like Jeff Withey (Kansas) and Mason Plumlee (Duke), and all those foreigners trying to gain a spot.
There’ll be disappointment for some, including this scribe who has long since tired of reporting the annual exodus from what was once a college sport and has become, at the very least, semi-pro.
This isn’t a call for freshman ineligibility, as we knew in the days prior to Audie Matthews (1975). But it is a call for something to be done when we see roughly half of the draft’s top 20 are likely to be those — Nerlens Noel, Anthony Bennett, etc. — who enrolled for just eight months of college. University presidents and commissioners are overdue in coming to grips with this problem.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.