Kenny Battle believes Illinois basketball is “in a great situation” under coach John Groce.
Kendall Gill calls Groce “the right man for the job.”
Stephen Bardo, a television analyst who gets paid to think deeply about these things, concurs — though he didn’t always.
“I wasn’t pleased with his hire at the beginning because I think at Illinois they try to take an approach of always trying to find the up-and-comer,” said Bardo, “and I think that puts us in the position of maybe not thinking of ourselves as highly as we could. Why not go get the proven coach?
“Having said that, John Groce is a very good surprise. I like the way he interacts with players. They seem to get better and better, and there’s a certain chemistry [in the program]. … I think John Groce is the right coach to get us back to [the NCAA Tournament] consistently.”
A couple of members of the Flying Illini who were giants in the Chicago Public League— Simeon’s Nick Anderson and King’s Marcus Liberty — aren’t as convinced.
“I like where it’s headed,” said Anderson, “but I would hope and would think they need to start getting a lot of the talent out of the Chicago area more, and not letting guys like Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis and Cliff Alexander get away.
“[Former Illini assistant] Jimmy Collins, who recruited me, he would’ve never let that happen. He went and got the talent. I have the utmost respect for Jimmy Collins. We are letting players get away.”
Liberty, once the most hyped high schooler in America, doesn’t believe Illinois does do enough to let its former Chicago stars act as a bridge to the city.
More specifically, Liberty, a high school basketball coach in Sarasota, Fla., thinks Groce should consider bringing someone like him in to join the coaching staff.
“As I watch my university, I would love to be there on that bench and to help that program get back where it used to be,” Liberty said. “When I see other universities — the Dukes — how they take care of their former players, I don’t feel the University of Illinois does the same thing. Whether the former players want to coach or not, but somehow be involved with that program.
“All of us are in our 40s now. Who’s going to relate to us more than anyone is the parents. The parents are our age now. ‘Oh, man, I remember that Flying Illini team!’ Say Nick Anderson was on that bench, or Kenny Battle or Marcus Liberty. Don’t you think fans would be saying, ‘Yeah, my kid is going to the University of Illinois’? Maybe their kid commits as a freshman because Nick Anderson is on that bench.”