Cure for Illini hoops is a dose of GroceOriginially published March 30, 2012
After a three week search, the llinois men’s basketball program has their new leader. John Groce, the head coach at Ohio University since 2008, agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year deal in Champaign that will pay him around $1.4 million annually.
Far from the first candidate – or second, third or fourth for that matter – Groce is all but ready to embark on the “opportunity of a lifetime.” During his introduction at Assembly Hall Thursday, the Danville, Ind., native spoke of Big Ten tradition and about memories of watching the 1989 Flying Illini team that came oh so close to a national title.
Deep down, most members of Illini Nation preferred VCU’s Shaka Smart or Butler’s Brad Stevens. They don’t buy into the bald Indiana boy that donned a blue Illini cap for his entire presser. However, this writer is excited to get the Groce era underway. After all, he deserves a chance to prove you wrong.
“There’s always skeptics in everything in life,” said Groce in response to a question about his hire. “If you don’t have thick skin in this profession, you’re in trouble. You can’t please everybody, but you have to do what’s right.”
In Groce, Illinois gets a young, passionate coach whose point guards are always in attack mode. His teams play fast, cause lots of turnovers and their bread and butter is the “drive-and-kick” to open perimeter shooters. Groce's system will be a nice change of pace from Bruce Weber’s (motionless) motion offense, which didn’t play into the strengths of his athletically gifted roster. In a more free-flowing transitional game, Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard could really thrive. And what better style of play to appeal to young Chicago high school stars that have consistently left the state for uptempo programs like North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis.
The combination of incredible recruiting skills and intense coaching principles make Groce a program builder. He’s built and maintained strong pipelines with AAU circuits in Indiana and Ohio since becoming a Thad Matta protégé back in 2000. And thanks to the success of Chicago product (and Groce recruit) D.J. Cooper in two of the last three tournaments, the dominos in the Windy City might fall faster than you think. You would also have to believe Groce is smart enough to hire an assistant with Chicago Public League ties. Of course, it didn't hurt that former Buckeye star and Chicago native Evan Turner sang Groce’s praises this week.
“Coach Groce’s offense is legit. Built for guards. The big ten is going to get even better in the future. … the Illini will have no problems getting Chicago players,” Turner tweeted on Tuesday.
Labeled the “flavor of the NCAA tournament” by pundits, Groce’s next mission will be to bring Illinois basketball back to the national forefront. It does baffle me though that without one recruiting trip, let alone a practice or game, that critics have already labeled Groce’s hire as a failure for Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas.
Why the gross reaction?
One could argue that Groce has a better résumé than former Illini head coach Bill Self had circa 2000. Sure, he lacks the Final Four experience that Smart and Stevens have, but did either of them serve as a lead recruiter in their short careers? At Ohio State, Groce successfully won the wars for Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, B.J. Mullens and Deshaun Thomas. All those players did was help the Buckeyes to two Final Fours and four Big Ten titles in a six year span.
Winning has been contagious everywhere Groce has been. Through 18 seasons on collegiate sidelines, he has tasted postseason play 16 times. He’s been a part of multiple conference championships, two Elite Eights and the 2007 Final Four. In four seasons at the helm at Ohio, Groce posted an 85-56 record with two MAC tournament titles, an upset of Georgetown in the 2010 NCAAs and a Sweet 16 run this past tournament with upset wins over Michigan and South Florida before falling to No. 1 seeded North Carolina in overtime.
Groce will undoubtedly hit the ground running with a chip the size of Champaign County on his shoulder. I want to root for Groce, a Midwestern boy that smiled so hard at his introduction, he unleashed more dimples than I thought were humanly possible. The effervescent underdog throughout the Illinois coaching search, Groce has paid his dues and many respected minds believe he’s ready for a shot at a power conference program. After all, he was cutting his coaching teeth at his alma mater when Smart and Stevens were piecing together plans for prom.
Tabbed as the “last resort” hire for Illinois, Groce will likely let his results do the talking. But Illini Nation needs to rally around him as a new era of basketball commences in Champaign. Those lucrative offers that Smart and Stevens rejected, leave those in the past. Besides, if Groce can replicate his success in March – 15-5 record over the last three years – Illinois will have hit this signing out of the park. Over that same period of time, Smart was 18-4, Stevens 15-2 and Bruce Weber 5-10.
Quite ironic how a couple extra wins in March is the perceived difference between “can’t-miss” and “last resort,” isn’t it? If Groce had guided the Bobcats to a Final Four, this hire would certainly be a slam dunk in the eyes of most. On the bright side, Illinois will continue to get better players than VCU and Butler. And I applaud Groce for being the only one willing to step up to the challenges of the Big Ten and attempt to mold those players into a unified band of brothers.
Here’s to John Groce, the newest member of the Illini family. Here’s to his beloved coffee and chicken wings. Here’s to fast breaks and great guards. And here’s to hoping that our biggest worry in three years is a contract extension, not a termination.---
March Madness and MeOriginally published March 19, 2009
Finally. The madness has returned. And there's nobody happier in the world than me.
You see, I've been in love with the game of basketball since the age of two. The year was 1991 and my parents had just presented me with a Fisher Price basketball hoop for my birthday. Seeing that I was just learning that my fingers weren't actually food and other now-hilarious childhood facts, I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. I do, however, remember my father showing me the basics. He'd catch my attention and proceed to loft the little orange ball through the air and into the little portable basket. Swish. The whipping of the ball through the net fascinated me. After a couple successful conversions from yours truly, I was hooked.
Growing up, I would spend most of my time either at the park or in my driveway playing ball. Playing pick-up games with friends and neighborhood kids alike. Re-creating Christian Laettner's game winner against Kentucky. Trying to dribble like then-Georgetown point guard Allen Iverson. Improving my mechanics toward the perfect jump shot. Even inclement weather wouldn't rain on my parade. As a matter of fact, I'd run outside in snowstorms just to shoot around. I'd nestle my little Illini beanie on and hit the pavement. Bounce. Dribble. Swoosh. It was that obsessive. I was encompassed in the game, a feeling that still holds true today.
And while my playing career ended almost four years ago in a climax that I'd rather not talk about, the game has not left me. In fact, maybe that's why I spend so much time watching and analyzing the game: I didn't want basketball to pass me by. Sure, I'm not lacing up the kicks or nailing three-pointers anymore, but I'm not that naive. There's no hard feelings or selfishness here. I'm just thankful enough to be able to turn on the television and watch my favorite sport -- college basketball.
Why college, you might ask? It's actually very simple. The passion. The pride. The rivalries. The bragging rights. The tears after devastating losses. What's not to love about a bunch of kids playing their hearts out, not for money, but for the love of the game? It's incredibly inspiring to watch players with team-first mentalities. Players that value the name on the front of the jersey, not the back. It's about student sections, decked with face paint and enough fire power to kill a buffalo, packing arenas and stadiums to create insanely loud environments for their opponents. And coaches are actually respected, some feared. In clutch situations, college players worry about running suicides in practice after botching free throws, while NBA players worry about their latest collaborations with Sprite or Nestle Crunch. College basketball isn't a business to the players. There are no sneaker deals. No agents. And absolutely no reason to take plays off. It consists of hard-nosed athletes putting everything on the line for 40 minutes at a time. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The month of March provides not only the start of spring, but the beginning of the greatest sporting event in the world. The 18-day long NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, which causes uprisings among friends and co-workers over bracket contests, is the most anticipated event in all of sports. You could combine the World Series, the NBA Finals and the Super Bowl, and still not match the prowess and hype of March Madness. Why? Because anything can happen. Sixty-five teams come together in a winner-take-all battle royale, where only the team standing tall at the end can deem themselves the best in all the land. Cinderellas come to life and shock the world. Favorites choke and fall on their faces. Ordinary players become legends.
Some of my fondest memories in tournament lore are the little guys who earned both respect and historical significance. A relatively unknown freshman by the name of Michael Jordan hit the game-winning shot in the 1982 championship game. MJ progressed through Chapel Hill and went on to become the greatest basketball player that ever lived, and it all started with his first brush with March Madness. Other memories include the late Jimmy Valvano leading N.C. State to the national title in 1983 before succumbing to cancer. Valparaiso's Bryce Drew being mobbed at center court after hitting a 25-foot three-pointer as time expired to knock off Mississippi in 1999. The 11th seeded George Mason Patriots going on an incredible run topping Michigan State, defending champion North Carolina and top-ranked Connecticut before finally bowing out in the 2006 Final Four. And most recently, Stephen Curry cementing his name in the record books as Davidson ran all the way to last year's Elite Eight with upset victories over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before falling to eventual champion Kansas.
Everything about this tournament is great. The electric atmospheres, the heavily painted faces of screaming fans, and, of course, the desire to put everything on the line in an attempt to succeed. And when failure occurs, we witness the pain and sorrow. Especially with the seniors. When the clock strikes zero on the final game of a career, you'll witness players putting their heads in their hands and breaking down. It's inevitable -- a true assessment that these games actually mean something. After four seasons of blood, sweat and tears, these 22-year-old young men have to adapt to the realization that they will never play competitive basketball again. The passion and pride of college athletics is exemplified to the fullest in March Madness.
So while you lounge around the house over the next few weeks in your recliners and La-Z-Boys keeping a close eye on your failing bracket sheet, try and appreciate the game of basketball. Because in the end, it's not about the hundred bucks you might nab in your best friend's pool. It's about the chance of a lifetime for college athletes to participate in the national spotlight. It's about athletes representing their families, their universities and their teammates. But most importantly -- it's about a bunch of college kids playing for the love of the game. And that is what makes these next three weeks so euphoric.
Blackhawk Down: Chicago’s Forgotten FranchiseOriginally published Aug. 14, 2008
Long before Jordan's Bulls, Walter Payton's Bears and Chris Farley’s Superfans another franchise ruled the Windy City. The Chicago Blackhawks once had a stronghold on the city and were the fans' pride and joy for the majority of the 20th century.
Equipped with forwards Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, defenseman Pierre Pilote and goaltender Glenn Hall, the young and up-and-coming Hawks were making lots of noise in the late 1950s. After a few years of learning the ropes and meshing together, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals three times in the '60s, including a championship in 1961 after defeating the Detroit Red Wings. The Hawks were young, disciplined and there seemed to be nothing that could stop them from blossoming into perennial championship contenders.
Then came William Wadsworth Wirtz.
As chief executive officer and controlling shareholder of the family-owned Wirtz Corporation, Bill Wirtz had a reputation for stubbornness and making sure things always went his way, regardless of how ugly a situation would turn out. The lifelong businessman wanted to run the Hawks like he ran his business deals, which unfortunately didn't always sit with loyal Chicagoans as Wirtz usually had money on the mind instead of keeping the fans happy.
Now realize that in the late 1960s, the Blackhawks were the team in Chicago. The cats pajamas. After all, the Bears were still struggling to find their niche after Papa Bear Halas retired, the White Sox and Cubs were experiencing high doses of mediocrity and the Bulls were just getting their feet wet in the NBA. Chicago was a hockey town and everyone lived and died with the Blackhawks. Fans would flock to Chicago Stadium to watch Hull and Mikita. After long days at work, men would get together at the local watering holes to have a few boilermakers and watch Tony Esposito tend goal. Kids would race home and finish their homework just in time for the opening faceoff. Chicago Blackhawks hockey was a way of life.
So when Wirtz's first order of business was to take the Hawks off of local television, you can imagine the chaos and uproar it caused throughout the city. No, that wasn't a typo. Bill Wirtz actually refused to show the games on the tube. What?! And you'll just laugh at his reasoning -- he felt that broadcasting regular home games was unfair to season-ticket holders and that if fans really wanted to see their so-called favorite team, they would come to Chicago Stadium and see them in person.
Wirtz was vilified by the fans because what used to be a tradition and a staple for the typical Chicago sports fan was no longer possible. Unless the Hawks were on national television (in those days, only playoff games were nationally televised), fans could not see them at all. It was completely blacked out. The fuzzy, snowy signal would override what used to be hard-nosed Chicago-style hockey. Fans wrote hatemail to Wirtz, promised to stop going to the Stadium and even sent death threats, but nothing shook the businessman with the plan. The Hawks remained unavailable on the tube and the fans' boycott had begun.
Still, many flocked to Chicago Stadium to watch the games as Blackhawk hockey games were still a very popular event. In fact, the Stadium earned the nickname "The Madhouse on Madison" due to the excessive amounts of noise that bounced around the walls thanks to the triple-tiered, boxy layout of the building and the infamous 3,663-pipe Barton organ that belted out tunes throughout the game. The Hawks continued to play winning hockey and the core remained intact throughout the early 1970s, but then "Dollar Bill" struck again.
In 1972, after years of dissatisfaction with the organization (mostly with Wirtz), longtime superstar Bobby Hull jumped ship on the Hawks and migrated over to the World Hockey Assocation for a million-dollar contract with the Winnipeg Jets. Chicago had lost its favorite son on the ice and the fan base took another blow below the belt. Even though the Hawks continued to make the playoffs every year throughout the rest of the decade, Blackhawks' fans were diminishing left and right. The passion had ceased and Chicagoans had shifted attention to the other sports teams in the area.
The Hawks continued to make the playoffs every year up until 1994, however, the deep runs toward the Stanley Cup Finals were no longer existent. What used to be a storied hockey franchise rich with tradition and lifelong player transcended into a business ran by a man with no loyalties. Wirtz could care less about making players feel welcome. He cared about one thing -- money -- and nothing else was important. He was blamed for letting Dominic Hasek and Ed Belfour walk, trading Denis Savard, Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick, but most importantly for killing generations of Chicago hockey fans.
When I would hear my uncle Mike (better known as Cheech), who has been a diehard Hawks fan since birth, talk about the glory days of Hull and Mikita and Esposito and Keith Magnuson, I could sense the happiness in his voice. He'd talk about going to the games with my father and grandfather 40 years ago and about how much the Hawks ruled the city. I would frequently ask Cheech what went wrong. Why couldn't I watch them on television? Why were kids my age rooting for other NHL teams? Obviously, he didn't want to talk about it.
"It's all a bunch of BS,” Cheech would proclaim.
And he's right. I was born in 1989, right before Michael Jordan and Co. took the city by storm with six NBA championships in eight seasons. And to be painfully honest, through most of my childhood, I didn't even know the Blackhawks existed. I didn't even know they played their games at the same venue as the Bulls. And how would I have known? How was I supposed to know that Bill Wirtz had been depriving me of hockey all along? How was I supposed to become a fan of a team that I could not watch on television? Granted, I could go to a few games here and there, but everyone knows it's a necessity to be able to watch your favorite team on TV. So I wrote hockey off, plain and simple, just like the rest of my generation.
Nonetheless, Bill Wirtz passed away on September 26, 2007 after 41 years in the Blackhawks' captain seat. Under his watch, ESPN named the Hawks the worst franchise in professional sports in 2004. Wirtz earned a wide variety of nicknames throughout the years, many which I can't even list here and was ranked as the third greediest owner in all of sports by ESPN. During the Blackhawks home opener in October 2007, the fans in attendance displayed their true feelings as boos rang throughout the United Center during Wirtz's tribute and eventual moment of "silence."
The calendar now reads 2008 and the Blackhawks have been making slow strides toward greener pastures. Bill's son Rocky has done tremendous things for the once-storied franchise including several changes in team policy. He actually believes in spending money to better the franchise, which is causing the fans to re-consider their previous hatred for the team. And oh yes, the Hawks were actually on cable television for the first time in almost 30 years last season and a deal is in the works to have every game televised for the upcoming campaign.
Rocky Wirtz is slowly but surely repairing the forgotten franchise that his father ran into the ground. He's brought back Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita as ambassadors, retired Keith Magnuson's and Pierre Pilote's No. 3 in an attempt to bring back some appreciation from the elder fans. He's put together a nice young core including Patrick Kane and newly appointed captain Jonathan Toews. And in an attempt to take things one step further in Chicago, Rocky has scheduled a New Years Day extravaganza at Wrigley Field as the Blackhawks will host the hated rival Detroit Red Wings, an event that will undoubtedly revitalize interest throughout the entire city.
Hockey in Chicago has made a complete 180 in the 10 months since Bill Wirtz has passed. The team has a very bright future what with a great young core, an enthusiastic front office led by Rocky Wirtz and new president John McDonough, and the motivation of excited, wanna-be fans like yours truly that are interested in becoming an integral piece of the franchise's new movement. Maybe I'll finally be able to call myself a Hawks fan in the coming years as they turn the page on a bitter past and prepare for a promising future.
After all, they were Chicago's pride and joy not too long ago.
David vs. Goliath: The National ChampionshipOriginally published April 6, 2009
The old adage says that everything happens for a reason. Luckily for college basketball fans, we only have to wait until Monday night.
As the clock struck midnight Saturday on Big East powerhouses Connecticut and Villanova, it became an instant revelation that America would witness the highly anticipated re-match between North Carolina and Michigan State. Just four months ago, the Tar Heels steamrolled into Detroit on Dec. 3 and shellacked State by 35 points, the program's most lopsided loss since 1996. This time around, Tom Izzo and Co. are determined and motivated to prove that they belong on the same floor.
Despite winning the Big Ten regular season title and placing as high as fifth in the polls this year, Sparty came into March Madness with little expectations from the general population. In fact, only 25 percent of ESPN.com Tournament Challenge entrants had MSU in the Final Four.
However, just like the little engine that could, State keeps chugging along. First, the experts said they couldn't beat Kansas twice in the same season. Then, they weren't athletic or offensively skilled enough to hang with Louisville. And most recently, they weren't big and strong enough to bang down low with the "bruising" Connecticut front court. Talk about silencing the critics.
Still, State is a monumental underdog against a Tar Heel squad equipped with nine high school All-Americans and at least three future lottery picks. Carolina is the best offensive team in the nation by far and they have incredible equilibrium of perimeter shooting and low post finesse. Mainstream media continues to praise UNC and deems them the best team since the UNLVs and Dukes of the early 90s. So the Heels are going to run Sparty out of the building, right?
Not this time.
For as great as North Carolina is (I wrote this past December that when they're healthy, they are hands down the best team in the country), there is something special about this bunch from East Lansing. Something "Magical" you could say. Something I didn't fully appreciate until I witnessed them completely exploit two of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds. In watching film and studying State's last two games, it became apparent how relentless they truly are in terms of getting to the glass and playing the type of physical defense that goes hand-in-hand with the blue collar toughness of Detroit. MSU's toughness and brute force down the stretch wore down the Cardinals and Huskies, allowing Sparty to pull away around the eight minute mark in both games. And with the best Xs and Os coach in the country on the side of the green and white, it's very hard for me to picture the colossal blowout that most of the pundits are predicting.
I implore you to discount the December meeting as it means absolutely nothing to Monday's contest. You can throw all this 35-point nonsense out the window as Michigan State playing with a banged up Delvon Roe and without Goran Suton is like eating cereal without milk -- it's passable, but you wouldn't wish it upon your worst enemy. Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson had their way with the depleted MSU frontcourt, one that saw Draymond Green and Marquise Gray seeing the majority of the minutes. No offense to them, but these guys are role players, not players that should be expected to guard the reigning Player of the Year and the most improved big man in the ACC. These mismatches opened up the floodgates for the drive-and-kicks to Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green and it continued to plunge downhill from there.
Fast forward to today, where you insert a healthy Suton and the most efficient Roe we've seen all year long, making this an entirely different ballgame. Need I remind you that Michigan State is the best rebounding team in the nation? Or how about how they outworked and outhustled Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien on the boards? MSU's ability to win the rebounding battle is crucial if they want any shot at striking down Goliath.
In order to be crowned national champions, State has to accomplish three things: win the aforementioned battle on the glass, slow down the pace of the game and have the discipline to take good shots to prevent Carolina from getting easy looks in transition. Knowing full well what the Heels are capable of on the break, you have to believe Tom Izzo has the perfect gameplan mapped out in his mind. Not that Roy Williams is a slouch, but since Izzo's bunch won their last three games with three different styles of basketball, I'll give the coaching advantage to Sparty.
Also, bench points will be huge as Michigan State is able to comfortably give its starters a breather since its supporting cast is filled with players that can knock down big shots. Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Korie Lucious have all had their shining moments this postseason and they anchor an impressive bench, one that outscored Connecticut 33 to 7 just two days ago.
If I were a betting man, it'd be hard to shy away from the eight points that Vegas will be giving MSU backers by tip-off. Carolina comes into the championship having won every single game by double digits, although none were really that close. UNC's first two games were a joke, Gonzaga is a mid-major hack and Oklahoma and Villanova completely shot themselves out of contention. State, on the other hand has been in three dogfights in which pinpoint execution was a must. They've been battle tested all tournament and have excelled in all facets of the game.
State needs to control the pace of this ball game and not let it turn into the Indianapolis 500. If Carolina gets out in transition time and time again, I agree this one could get real ugly, real fast. But I know that Izzo knows that his guys need to be smart with the basketball and take efficient shots in order to slow down the Carolina Express. Izzo is renowned for running the best offensive sets in the half-court game. And State can shoot it from deep too, let's not discount that. The Spartans are 22-0 this season when they shoot 30 percent or better from three.
From a defensive standpoint, slowing down Lawson, Hansbrough and Ellington is going to be an extremely difficult task as these three players are as skilled and seasoned as any collegiate players in the past five years. But don't underestimate the speed and playmaking abilities of Kalin Lucas, the superior interior defense of Suton and Roe, and the hard-nosed, intensified defense of Travis Walton, who will be responsible for disrupting Ellington's sweet stroke. Let's not forget that Walton's defensive assignments against Sherron Collins, Terrence Williams and A.J. Price/Kemba Walker were easily the deciding factors in State's victories over Kansas, Louisville and UConn respectively.
Michigan State is the toughest team I've seen in years and they never, ever give up. Knowing that they are workaholics on defense and they rarely make bad decisions with the rock, I believe they have a realistic chance to hoist the trophy in their home state in front of the largest crowd in Final Four history. MSU is playing its best basketball of the season at the perfect time and how fitting that the title game is in Detroit, where upwards of 50,000 green and white clad fans will make for the most hostile environment Carolina has seen all year. Sparty has been the underdog since the Sweet 16, but they've continued to rise to the challenge and play perfect basketball when it matters most.
Keep doubting the Spartans folks, it'll only make this extremely underrated underdog bark louder and bite harder.