Take Two: Is the Illinois job overrated?

May, 22, 2012
5/22/12
12:15
PM ET
Editor’s note: Each week, ESPN.com writers will debate a topic of interest in the college basketball landscape. Today’s topic: Is the Illinois head coaching job overrated? For Jason King's feature on the new man in charge of the Illini, click here.

Myron Medcalf

Well, Eamonn, I’ll start by saying that Chicago and Champaign are not sister cities, as you know. They’re not even distant cousins. The bright lights of Chicago offer vivid contrasts to the rural confines that surround the University of Illinois.

And that’s what some folks failed to realize as multiple candidates rejected offers to take over the program -- an overrated gig, in my opinion -- during this offseason.

[+] EnlargeJohn Groce
Don McPeak/US PresswireNew Illinois coach John Groce will have easy access to a lot of in-state talent, but recruiting Chicago is ... complicated.
Yes, Chicago boasts mad talent in the prep ranks, and it’s a few hours north of Champaign.

So what?

Folks attached to and inside the program have quietly conveyed for years that not hiring an African-American coach has turned some Chicago-area prospects away from Illinois and made it easier to consider alternatives. If I’m a black kid in Chicago, and can hop on a two-hour flight from O’Hare and reach just about any school in the country, what’s the incentive to attend Illinois over more marquee programs, especially since the school has never hired an African-American head coach?

Sure, it’s a high-paying job in a prestigious league. But affiliation only goes so far.

Just ask Rob Kardashian.

No, John Groce isn’t a bad hire. He’s a proven leader whose successful stints as an assistant at Ohio State and head coach at Ohio led him to this position.

But he’s definitely in a tough spot.

How do you lure the best kids in the region, most of whom reside in Chicago, when you’re two-plus hours away and lack the state-of-the-art facilities that your competitors possess?

Jabari Parker, the best high school player in America, lives in Chicago, and few believe he’ll sign with the Illini.

Yes, there’s a certain nostalgia about Assembly Hall. And yes, the fans are rabid. It’s one of the most intimidating venues in the country. And still, Shaka Smart said no. I get it.

The Illinois gig simply lacks the pizazz and clout it once warranted. You can’t sell kids on facilities. You can’t sell every kid on proximity to the Windy City. You don’t own the state, so you have to fight poachers from various schools and conferences daily. You’re simultaneously nearby and separated from the best players in the area.

That’s the problem. That’s why so many said no.

Bottom line: Overrated.

Eamonn Brennan

It doesn't require much of a mental stretch to see why the Illinois job is an attractive one. In fact, we might be approaching "so overrated it's underrated" territory -- wherein we're spending all our time explaining away the reasons the job is a good one in the first place.

I happen to agree with Mr. Medcalf: The Illinois job is overrated, at least by many of its fans, for whom the expectations of success often seem to vastly outpace reality. When you combine those expectations with the aging landed spaceship that is Assembly Hall, as well as the difficulties of the Chicago recruiting scene, it's not hard to figure why Shaka Smart and several others turned down the gig before John Groce agreed to take it on.

But this wouldn't be much of a Take Two if I just agreed with Myron, now would it? Besides, Illinois has plenty of positives to recommend it.

The first is location. It is difficult to recruit in Chicago, sure, but it is still a major advantage to be so close to so much in-state talent. And let's not forget the proximity to Indiana, specifically Indianapolis, where a deep pool of talented prep stars emerge each and every season.

The second is fan base. Yes, Illinois fans are intense. Yes, they expect a lot. Yes, that balance makes life difficult for a coach. But UI's fan base also provides plenty of built-in advantages, most notably the luxury of hosting opponents in an arena packed to the gills with screaming orange-clad faithful. When the Illini are good, there are few places in the country more difficult to play than Assembly Hall. Given the choice -- apathy versus high expectations -- any coach would happily take the latter.

The Big Ten is a fantastic league, offering big-time exposure and competition against some of the nation's best players on a yearly basis, and Illinois remains a big state school wedged within an afternoon's drive of two of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. It has plenty of resources and great fans. You can win a national title there. At the end of the day, that's the distinction that matters.

The Illinois job has weaknesses and strengths, many of which overlap. If Groce harnesses them savvily, we might turn around in three years and wonder what all this overrated fuss was about in the first place.

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