New Illini A.D. Whitman impressive, but not forthcoming re: Groce

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This week’s Bucket List — 10 observations on the college basketball season.

1. New Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman sure came off well during Thursday’s nearly hour-long introductory press conference. The 37-year-old former Illini tight end, who served as A.D. at a pair of Division III schools, was bright, determined, heartfelt and unscripted. This could end well.

2. Yet everyone still wants to know what Whitman is going to decide in regard to football coach Bill Cubit and — perhaps of greater importance to Illini Nation — basketball coach John Groce. Whitman called Cubit and Groce “tremendous coaches” and gave no indication that he’s plotting to find their replacements.

“I am so excited to work with them,” he said, “and figure out ways that I can surround them with resources and opportunities to put our programs in better positions to be successful.”

Which is not to suggest either coach is safe. Not by a long shot.

“I’m excited to get some of his ideas,” Groce told reporters. “I’m excited to get a chance to learn from him.”

Not sure how excited Whitman will be to watch — suffer through? — the Illini’s final five Big Ten contests, which include visits to Wisconsin and Maryland as well as a home date with first-place Indiana.

3.Even Illinois is STILL a thick cut above the two worst teams in the Big Ten: Rutgers and Minnesota, which have a scintillating combined league mark of 1-26 after Minnesota’s shocking 68-63 upset of No. 6 Maryland on Thursday night.

The league has seen 1-17 teams (Northwestern in 2007-08, Indiana in 2008-09) and 2-16 teams (Penn State in 2012-13, Rutgers in 2014-15), but never has it seen double-barrel bad like this in the same season. Nine years ago, NU and Penn State both finished 2-14. Before Minnesota’s win Thursday, this year’s Scarlet Knights and Golden Gophers would have both been considered bad enough to lose ’em all if not for the fact they still have a pair of head-to-head meetings on the schedule. We hope they’ll understand if we take a pass on watching those games.

4. Ohio State, meanwhile, is 9-5 in Big Ten play, has a victory over Kentucky under its belt and is — no kidding — a total long shot to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s crazy.

The Buckeyes are barely on bracketologists’ radars now, not even considered one of the so-called “first teams out.” And their remaining league schedule — at Nebraska, vs. Michigan State, vs. Iowa, at Michigan State — is brutal.

Maybe next year, dudes.

5. Meanwhile, Oklahoma apparently can’t fall off ESPN’s No. 1 seed line no matter how hard it tries. The Sooners have lost three of their last four games — two of them to non-NCAA tourney teams with sub-.500 Big 12 records — yet ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi still has them as a top seed. Something doesn’t add up here.

6. North Carolina, meanwhile, kind of kissed its No. 1 seed status goodbye (for now, anyway) with Wednesday’s one-point home loss to archrival Duke. Great game. Tense, thrilling, all that. But there’s no question UNC should’ve won it, and no debate about how thoroughly coach Roy Williams has been outperformed by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for the better part of a decade now. The Tar Heels have dropped 11 of the last 14 meetings between the schools, and Williams’ legacy has suffered for it.

7. All this North Carolina talk is a good reminder of Notre Dame’s incredible run against ACC opponents from that state in the last two seasons. The Irish are 9-1 in that span — and 6-1 against UNC and Duke, which has to be among the most impressive individual team trends in all of college basketball. Wake Forest and North Carolina State still loom on the regular-season schedule for the 19th-ranked Irish.

8. The most underrated conference tourney will be the Atlantic 10’s. It’s a terrific league with a three-way tie for first at 11-2 among Dayton, Saint Joseph’s and VCU — the first two of which have strong NCAA tourney at-large potential no matter what happens down the stretch — and a few other squads that are highly dangerous. Try to remember to give it a long look.

9. Talked this week with our favorite mid-major player in quite a while, Oakland (Mich.) point guard Kahlil Felder. The 5-9 Felder — who ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (24.4 points per game) and tops in assists (9.2) — has been creating some NBA buzz, but he assured the Sun-Times he’ll be back in school for his senior season. It’ll be no surprise if Felder, who lit up Washington for 38 points, Michigan State for 37 and Virginia for 30 this season, plays his way into 2017’s first round.

10. Let’s stay with Oakland, where the next head coach could be none other than Michigan State superstar Denzel Valentine’s older brother, Drew.

Greg Kampe was 28 — a baby — when he took the Oakland job. Thirty-one seasons later … well, at some point he might start thinking about when he’d like to wrap it up. Valentine, Oakland’s winningest player and a former graduate manager under Tom Izzo at MSU, is a trusted assistant to Kampe and very hopeful that he’ll get to lead his alma mater someday.

Follow me on Twitter@slgreenberg.


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