Joe Henricksen is a well respected Chicago area talent evaluator and author of the City/Suburban Hoops Report. He has a finger on the pulse of Chicago area basketball and has been observing the Illinois basketball program for many years now. Speaking on WDWS radio Saturday, he shared his thoughts on John Groce and the future of Illini basketball.
Groce grew up in Indiana and coached there and in Ohio, so Henricksen admits he does not know him well.
"I don't know much about him. Obviously, I've watched Ohio a little bit. But that's one program in the MAC that I've not had a lot of contact with. A little bit here and there, but not much.
"Who knows just how good this guy is? You look at his resume as a coach, his track record as an assistant, there are plenty of positives to pull out. And there are negatives and concerns that you can pull out as well.
"The two biggest areas I have of whether he can coach, by that I mean coach at a high level against some of the elite coaches in the country, and then how dynamic and personable a figure he is on the recruiting trail, will take some time to play out."
Henricksen sees some good things but also has concerns.
"There are a lot of things that you can pull out that says this guy fits well. He's high-energy, he brings a different persona than what you're used to with Coach (Bruce) Weber. And what jumps out at you the most, is the fact his teams have played their best basketball when it's meant the most, and he's succeeded.
"There's some questions you can look at that you can't ignore. For instance, the 34-30 record in the MAC. Some people dismiss that; post season success will do that. But it's still 34-30 in a league like the MAC, where Ohio is considered by many to be the best job in the conference. He finished third in the MAC, and any coach in the league will tell you that Ohio had the best talent.
"But to his credit, his teams have played best in the biggest moments. They played their best basketball when it mattered most, in the NCAA tournament. It wasn't a total rebuilding process at Ohio; Ohio had won more games in the previous four years in the MAC then John Groce did in his four years.
"But I also know that coaches in that league are really glad that John Groce is out of there. They believe he was really on the verge of building that thing into something, the players he had coming back, the level that he was recruiting at, as well as the style they bring. It's a really tough style in terms of that attack he's always talking about."
Can Groce's attacking style be successful against conservative Big 10 coaches?
"I think his style is much less riskier than Shaka Smart's style. That style really raises questions whether that will work, relentless pressure full court. This is a lot of pressure in attack mode, but it's not that same type of style that we haven't seen before. So I don't see any reason why it wouldn't work.
"He really gives freedom for his players to go make plays. Expect to see plenty of drives, plenty of kicks and ball screens, isolations, things that we've seen before. We see this at Kentucky, we see that style played all across the country. I don't think it's not going to work in the Big Ten. It's a style other teams are going to have to adjust to.
"But you've got to have the right players for that style. I don't necessarily think the players that are in the program now fit that style. I don't think the players coming in, particularly Michael Orris, fit that style at all. So it's going to be interesting to see how that gels in the first year or two as he moves forward."
There's major interest in how Groce will fill out his assistant coaching staff. Illini recruiting ace Jerrance Howard is under consideration for a spot on the staff. How might that all play out?
"The rumors I hear are so off base with some of the candidates and people they're talking about. I am friends with some of them, and they have had no contact with Illinois or Groce at all. That doesn't mean that they won't be, but it remains to be seen what will happen, not only with Jerrance but the entire staff.
"He did meet with Jerrance Thursday night, and I know it went well. I spoke with Jerrance, and he came out very impressed with John Groce. He and I have talked about the rumors and discussed many things about his future. Thursday night he said to me, 'I just love the University of Illinois.'
"But I don't think anything has come to fruition at all on that front. They just met for the first time on Thursday, so they have to figure things out on what is best for both of them.
"I would believe, and I'm just guessing, that John Groce would want to make sure Jerrance is completely on board with everything, full steam ahead on the same page. And any head coach has a right to do that. But as would be the case with any assistant coach, if there's a big-time option out there, then you have to look and seriously consider them. Especially when you talk about programs streaming out head coaches and playing at an elite level.
"It's a tricky spot for Jerrance Howard because I think there will be people coming after him, and particular people will be difficult to turn down at the end of the day. But he does have that one thing that he falls back on more so than any normal assistant coach: he truly does love that place where he's at. He has a connection to that. I just think there's a lot more to be played out on the Jerrance Howard front."
According to Henricksen, Groce needs at least one assistant who has developed recruiting relationships in Chicago and surrounding areas.
"This is not confirmed by the Ohio staff, but I've heard at least one assistant will be coming for sure, or two. If Jerrance Howard, for some reason, were not retained or decided to go elsewhere, I really think you've got to have some kind of connection or tie, at least one guy, to Chicago. Someone who has experience recruiting Illinois.
"It doesn't mean if he doesn't, it's an end-all. But I think that speeds up this early process for any head coach who's coming in without real strong ties to recruiting Chicago and the suburbs. 'You know me, I like this guy.' It kind of closes that gap a little more quickly. I think that's important, especially with all the talent in the 2013 and 2014 classes in Illinois."
Howard is extremely close to Illini players, especially the six-man freshman class. How deleterious would Howard's departure be for those players and their desire to play for Illinois?
"If you ask me, I think it's imperative that they keep him. But I'm not the head coach at Illinois. I'm assuming that there's definitely an interest. Not only that, but with the commitments they already have in Jalen James and Malcolm Hill. The fact is, there's such a young group in place at Illinois, six newcomers last year, and Jerrance brought all six in. So there's a huge connection between those kids and Jerrance Howard."
Players are always in turmoil during a coaching change. Emotions run high; players may emote negative feelings initially that change toward a more positive perspective over time.
"Anytime there's a firing of a coach where there's a lot of players left over recruited by those guys, and they genuinely like the people that were fired, you see this emotion, you see this reaction everywhere. It's not just Illinois, you see this all over the country.
"The first reaction is, 'I'm out of here.' But that stuff settles down. I'm not saying that one or two of these kids might not leave, but the first reaction is always the same.
"It's the same thing with the Public League guys. We see all this stuff that comes with a storm slowly disappear. Not only with Jerrance Howard, but John Groce has a selling job to do to these kids, to get them to buy in and believe immediately. He has some time to do that. If he is who we hope he is as a coach, I think you'll be able to do that.
"Jerrance Howard is important, but I think it's more important even what John Groce sells to them because he's the guy that gonna be their head coach."
Some Chicago high school coaches made statements when asked about the hire that implied concerns. According to Henricksen, many of these comments were overblown, taken out of context or misunderstood.
"We've seen before the reaction from the Public League and AAU coaches when different people have been hired at different programs. It's a little bit of a beat-to-the-chest, a little bravado. That's fine, but you've got to take it for what it's worth.
"When Jerrance Howard was hired at Illinois, we heard the same stuff: 'Why didn't they hire an assistant coach with Chicago ties? Why didn't they hire a Chicago guy?'
"When Oliver Purnell was hired at DePaul, they said the exact same thing. Not that they have it turned around, but Purnell has been establishing a relationship with these people.
"And the second part of it, some of the comments were misconstrued and blown out of proportion from what they were saying. I didn't really hear anyone say, 'I'm not gonna let this guy come recruit our kids. We are going to shut the door on him.'
"It was more, 'We don't know the guy. You want the guys to like him?' They don't know him, so they came out and said they can't understand why you wouldn't hire a guy that isn't more familiar with Chicago people.
"It's gonna fall back on John Groce. Those first and second impressions are going to be huge. Whether he can build that relationship, if he has a little bit of that 'it' factor. That's what it comes down to. If Groce has a little of that in him, a personality and ability to relate and connect, a dynamic like a Bill Self had, along with the work ethic in recruiting that he's already proven, he's gonna be fine.
"It's gonna be wait-and-see. It comes back to the assistant coaches and staff. I think that process can speed up a little bit. It may be one guy is hired in particular that is connected and can vouch for (Groce) in the city of Chicago and suburbs."
There have been rumors of interest by Chicago Simeon High School coach Robert Smith in an assistant's position at Illinois. Some have said Smith has met with UI athletic director Mike Thomas or others. But Henricksen has his doubts, both about the contact and the interest.
"As far as Rob Smith, I've talked to him all week this week, almost every day. At this point, I'd be very surprised if Rob Smith is at Illinois as an assistant coach. As of yesterday, he hadn't any discussions as an assistant with John Groce.
"People have this perception of Rob Smith that I'm not sure he is. Rob will even admit that. He is not this guy, this figure that just goes out and recruits and talks to people.
"He's more of a Wayne McClain type, where he's a figure for the kids, and he likes to coach and instill discipline. He isn't that type of guy where he's just gonna go pound the pavement and scour every gym. That's just not him.
"Now, he's got Jabari (Parker), he's got Kendrick (Nunn). I know Jabari has come out and said he will give Illinois a look. But from everything they said, and the priority that they have on certain things, it's gonna be really tough I think for Illinois to land Jabari Parker."
Several Chicago coaches have made statements supporting Groce, but some media and fans ignored those in favor of questions and concerns. Even the so-called bad statements were simple statements of fact.
"I completely agree. All they were saying is, they didn't know the guy. That's important; it would have been a big help to hire a coach that did have a relationship or at least had been recruiting these guys. That wasn't the case, and that's all they stated."
Perhaps Illini Nation needs to take Henricksen's next statement to heart and not presume the worst when discussing Chicago area coaches.
"I have learned through all of this and throughout the years, believe it or not, these guys do want Illinois to succeed. They want Depaul to succeed as well. They love when their kids stay at home where they can see them play. The right circumstances have to be in place for that to happen. Illinois has no shot at these kids if they're not playing at a high level."
It appears common knowledge that college coaches must operate in "gray" or potentially illegal areas to recruit top talent from Chicago. Henricksen cannot refute that for many of the best prospects.
"For a certain some of them, yeah. It's the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. I feel bad for Coach (Bruce) Weber when they say he can't recruit, particularly immediately after the Final Four. There's certain kids, they weren't coming to Illinois with the way Illinois does things in recruiting.
"I'm not saying brownbag it and roll out tons of money. But there is a way to do it, and there is a way to work in the gray area that, I'm sorry, that's how high-level programs work.
"That's not to say every single kid is on the take, and there's not kids you can get who can become better quality players. But it is very difficult to find the elite player that can turn a program into a perennial Final Four program without working that way a little bit.
"What's disappointing right now is that Illinois is not in a position to recruit Jabari Parker, who is really not that type. He's such a quality kid with such a great upbringing. Jahlil Okafor kind of falls into that same category. With these guys, it's doable. I think if Illinois were in a different situation...but that doesn't mean you can't succeed without doing it.
"To compete at an extremely high level, it's hard not to do it. I don't say you can't, but it's difficult. I just think it goes a long way to have somebody that is tied into Chicago. I hear people say, 'Don't recruit Chicago, forget Chicago.'
"I do think the staff is going to make more effort to recruit out-of-state, I really do. The makeup of this staff looks like it's going to have recruiting connections in the Big Ten area. But that being said, I don't know how you win at Illinois at an extremely high level without dominant Illinois high school prep talent."
Few previous head coaches at Illinois have recruited out-of-state successfully and repeatedly. Perhaps Groce can reverse that trend. But Henricksen states the obvious when evaluating where Groce's prime recruiting area must be.
"If you ever want to win big at Illinois, the focus does have to be Illinois and Chicago. That's just the nature of the beast; that's where you're at. So take advantage of it.
"I do think the staff will make a little bit of a concerted effort outside, but that's tough too. Illinois has never had a player from Indiana. Right now, if you're really good in Indiana, it's gonna be really difficult to get you away from Tom Crean and Indiana with what they're doing right now and how they got things rolling. Maybe he can tap into Ohio since he has such strong ties to all of Ohio."
Henricksen summarizes by restating the importance of having one or more coach with strong connections in the Chicago area.
"There's ways to go about it to build this thing back up. But I do think it helps to have someone who has a pre-existing relationship that those people trust already on your staff to really speed this thing up, instead of waiting a year or two to finally buy into John Groce and what he's all about. It'll be interesting to see how that staff shakes out."