CHAMPAIGN – Illinois basketball missed the NCAA tournament – not to mention the NIT – and previously endured several seasons of mediocre results.
So it was destined to be a rebuilding job.
Now the new coach has to rebuild his staff, too.
John Groce has another hire to make after learning assistant coach Isaac Chew is leaving Illinois for Marquette. Chew said Tuesday he has accepted a position on Buzz Williams’ staff in Milwaukee.
The difficulty of the decision was evident. Chew had been in Champaign-Urbana for roughly six weeks – his family had yet to move to town – and had grown close to the new Illinois staff.
Illinois made a counter-offer to entice Chew to stay at Illinois. But the opportunity to join Williams, who has taken Marquette to consecutive Sweet 16s and has turned down multiple job offers from other programs to stay at the Big East school, was too attractive. Chew was scheduled to leave for Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
“It was an emotional decision. It was emotional for me and for my wife and my family,” Chew said by phone. “Coach Groce is going to do a great job (at Illinois). This had nothing to do with the challenge. I think the world of coach Groce and his staff. I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity. That’s just the bottom line.”
Groce had hired Chew away from Missouri, where he was an assistant on Frank Haith’s staff for one season. Prior to that, Chew spent four years at Murray State, where he helped recruit the core of the roster that barnstormed the Ohio Valley Conference and advanced to the NCAA tournament last season.
His ties to Chicago, where he attended high school, made him an attractive candidate for Groce’s staff.
Unfortunately for the Illini, it also made him an attractive candidate for Marquette. And the news of the move came as a shock to the Illini coaches, a tight-knit group that is quite optimistic about the staff Groce has pieced together.
But there clearly is a hill to climb in returning Illinois to its former self. Make no mistake: this project is viewed as a rebuild.
Groce already had filled one position that opened up when a staffer left for another job. Brandon Miller, a former Ohio State assistant, replaced Ramon Williams in an administrative capacity.
Williams left Illinois for Virginia Tech. That move wasn’t a surprise; Williams went from an administrative role in the Midwest to a full-time assistant coaching position near his hometown of Roanoke, Va.
Chew's decision made sense from his standpoint. Now the Illini will need to make another hire that makes sense from theirs.