With John Groce out, Illini AD Josh Whitman must step up his game

Illinois fans got what they wanted Saturday.

On the same afternoon when rival Northwestern spread the word about a Selection Sunday watch party at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Illinois lowered the boom on fifth-year men’s basketball coach John Groce, on whose watch frustration and disappointment had become the norms at State Farm Center.

A 37-53 Big Ten record and four consecutive NCAA Tournament whiffs were all the reasons anyone should’ve required to determine that the 45-year-old Groce — a good, determined, hard-working coach — had to go.

But there were other obvious flaws with Groce’s program.

Can Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman make a basketball hire that goes over as well as his football hiring of Lovie Smith? | Heather coit/AP

The Illini often were awful with the ball in their hands, suffering through extended scoring droughts while running an offense that begged the question: What is their offense?

Blowout losses became a regular thing, especially on the road.

And, of course, there was the lethal strain of apathy that ran through a growing segment of the fan base. Attendance at the Farm became a major issue.

It’s not that complicated: Groce simply wasn’t good enough.

“We have a basketball program that we all expect to compete for Big Ten and national championships year in and year out,” athletic director Josh Whitman said.

Well, that sure sounds good. But if there’s any real basis for thinking Illinois can do annually what only a handful of programs across the country are able to do — rise to the top — some of us will have to see more evidence. On that note, a few questions:

1. Is Whitman really up to this?

Illini Nation seems to be convinced that the 38-year-old Whitman, an alumnus who played in the NFL and has a law degree from the school, can do no wrong. He is charismatic, intelligent, good with a catch-phrase and — in a move that won him wide acclaim — he hired Lovie Smith to coach the football team.

But Whitman had a history with Smith and had him on ice before firing then-coach Bill Cubit. Whitman himself might find that he doesn’t have a whole lot of reach in the basketball world. He has big money to throw at a replacement — a huge factor — but it’s hard to look at his small-school experience prior to Illinois without a degree of skepticism.

2. Will the new coach bring a high-quality staff?

We ask this question about football coaches routinely. It’s just as important in basketball. Groce’s staff was, to put it plainly, inexperienced at the top level of the college game. It’s not a leap to suspect Illinois was often outcoached because its team of coaches was subpar.

One reason to be high on Cuonzo Martin as a candidate for this job: His current staff at California is impressive. The former Purdue star and East St. Louis native’s assistants served previously at schools such as Duke, Louisville and Syracuse. One member of Martin’s staff was a Division I head coach for nearly a decade.

That’s quality. Give me a head coach who’s able and willing to surround himself with others from whom he might learn a thing or two.

3. Should Illinois be Dancing every year?

Sorry, but no. Unless you think Illinois should wake up one day soon and be every bit as strong as Michigan State and Wisconsin, which are the only Big Ten programs that essentially never miss the NCAA Tournament.

Currently, the gap between Illinois and the best programs in its conference is enormous. The gap between Illinois and “competing for national championships year in and year out” is immeasurable.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com