I’m an Illinois student, fan, and college basketball aficionado. That being said, there hasn’t been a point this year when I thought Illini Men’s Basketball had a tournament team and there won’t be. After a 25-point loss began a stretch of discouraging B1G matchups to come for Illinois, it was clear that the gap between Jon Groce and his players is big as ever.
Certainly, AD Josh Whitman, who has not shied away from making big moves, has noticed this continual disconnect as well. As a tournament-less year would continue one of the program’s roughest patches ever, it would be naïve for Whitman to not think about the next step for this program and its talented incoming recruits. For a university that identifies itself as a “basketball school” and a university that has recently invested millions into its basketball arena, there is a perfect candidate to be the next head coach of this program: Cuonzo Martin.
For those unfamiliar with Cuonzo Martin, he is currently the head coach at Cal-Berkeley. However, there are quite a few reasons why it would make sense for both Illinois and Martin to unite.
- The 2017 recruiting class: If there were anything that could force Whitman to consider keeping Groce for another season, it would be one of Illinois’ three incoming top 100 recruits. Realizing that Groce’s seat is warming up, 4-star recruit Trent Frazier tweeted in Groce’s defense Thursday pleading for Illinois to keep him. If that wasn’t enough pressure, U of I’s top recruit, 5-star Jeremiah Tilmon, has already shown some indecisiveness about his decision and stated that he wouldn’t be coming to Champaign in the fall if not for Groce’s staff. The good news? Cuonzo Martin is from East St. Louis (where Jeremiah Tilmon lives and goes to school). While Frazier’s loyalty towards U of I itself may waiver, it is unlikely that he would leave if Tilmon and his other 2017 peers stay committed to U of I for next fall.
- Relatability: Perhaps the most inexcusable aspect of Groce’s struggles at Illinois have been the talent he’s had to work with. Despite being able to regularly draw commitments from top-100 recruits, Groce has failed to motivate his players and get a consistent effort out of them. Sometimes his teams look prepared and hungry while other times, they play unmotivated and selfish basketball. Being a former Big Ten player at Purdue, and eventually an NBA player, Martin has the experience to understand what being a successful B1G player entails. For guys whose ultimate goal is the NBA, Martin would serve as a trustworthy and experienced role model, especially since he is from Illinois.
- Resources: While Martin seems like a sure upgrade at Illinois, you may be asking yourself why Martin would leave a Cal program that is consistently rising in the Pac-12. The answer lies in the resources and potential that Illinois offers. Traditionally, as one of the better programs in college basketball, Illinois has shown that Champaign can consistently be home to a B1G contender. If history isn’t enough of an indication, Illinois’ hefty spending on the State Farm Center renovations should leave no doubt that they are willing to contribute the necessary resources to help their program succeed. If Martin can recruit and execute with Cal’s smaller stadium at a non-basketball school, it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t replicate that with more resources in his home-state where high school talent is plentiful.
- Charlie Moore: Despite the commitments Jon Groce has gotten for next year, his job safety remains endangered because of the bigger picture. Talent aside, a mediocre coach can only sustain success for so long, especially when players are coming and going at the college level. That being said, it wouldn’t hurt that former Illinois recruit and Cal-freshman PG Charlie Moore could return back to his home state if Martin was hired at U of I. Moore, who chose Memphis over Illinois, before de-committing and switching to Cal, was a 4-star recruit out of Chicago. While Illinois couldn’t land him, he showed plenty of interest in Champaign and his loyalty to Martin could be enough to persuade him to transfer to U of I. With three years of eligibility and already some impressive showings, Moore would be a good piece for Martin to have moving forward.