Harrington: Building a team

Four years in, Illini basketball coach John Groce is still searching to find the right mix of players

Recruiting in college basketball is no easy task.  

Coaches need to find the right players to blend together into a cohesive team.  It is impossible to see into the future and know whether a player will transfer, decommit or suffer a season-ending injury.  The reality is these things will happen to all coaches at some point or another.  

Building a team can be done in a number of ways.

Iowa State has been labeled “Transfer U” over the past five seasons. Former Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, found a way to get a roster full of transfers to blend together and play an exciting style of basketball that resulted in successful seasons.  

Bo Ryan has taken the opposite approach.  The Wisconsin coach continues to recruit four-year players who learn from the upperclassmen. And when their number is called, they answer the bell.  When starting point guard Traevon Jackson went down with an injury during the third Big Ten game this past season, sophomore Bronson Koenig stepped right in and played great basketball.  Now, with the Badgers losing four of five starters, don’t be surprised to still see the Badgers finish in the top-four of the Big Ten for the 14th straight year.  

Iowa State and Wisconsin have been very successful and have taken two completely different recruiting approaches.  If you can’t duplicate these systems, you have to be able to use a good mix of them.

John Groce is entering Year Four at Illinois and is still trying to find that right mixture of players.  

After taking over a team that finished 6-12 (10th place) in the Big Ten during Bruce Weber’s final season in Champaign, Groce and his staff had to use a few transfers to fill some holes.

After signing 18 players to scholarships, eight of those players have been transfers.  Seven of those eight players have played one year or less (Rayvonte Rice played two seasons). He invested one-year scholarships into two fifth-year transfers: Sam McLaurin and Jon Ekey, each of whom added something to the roster while providing leadership. He also added multi-year transfers Rice, Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul.

Rice was the Illini's best player the last two seasons, so he was well worth it. Cosby, Starks and Paul (who was suspended for a second time in three seasons after getting arrested in France during the team's foreign trip) have produced little for their combined seven-year scholarship investment, and Illinois has suffered because of it -- missing the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. Of course, losing team leader Tracy Abrams in back-to-back seasons due to two separate injuries never could have been predicted.  

It is very difficult to create a culture and build on success when there is a lot of turnover in the roster. In today’s college basketball culture where there were more than 650 transfers last season, it is necessary to get a transfer or two. But the ratio of four-year players to transfers on a roster needs to be closer to 3-to-1 instead of 1-to-1.   

Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn should be the two best players and leaders for the current Illini team.  Both will be four-year players and have been with Groce since the beginning.  With some good young talent in the sophomore and freshmen classes, now is the time to ride the players that will be in the program for the next three to four seasons.  Bring in freshmen, develop them and let them learn under these guys so they will be ready to step up when the older guys graduate.  

Most transfers are leaving a school for a reason.  They are not happy with their coach, teammates, minutes or have off-the-court issues.  There is a time and place to bring in a transfer to help a program.  However, not every team has found the same success as Iowa State. 

Darius Paul is just the latest Illini transfer under Groce that hasn’t quite worked out.

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