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Coaching Candidate Profile: Would California’s Cuonzo Martin be a fit at Illinois?

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The head coach of the Golden Bears is already being mentioned as a possible target.

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. Following two straight losses at home and a winless road record in the Big Ten, the 13th-place Illini have a fan base that is growing impatient with Groce’s shortcomings. Many are calling for AD Josh Whitman to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach. Despite their recent struggles, Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason, given nothing shocking happens at a place like Indiana.

So who are some candidates to replace the head honcho in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current California head coach Cuonzo Martin.


Past Experience

Martin has a lot of coaching (and playing) experience. After playing in the Big Ten at Purdue for four years, Martin was selected in the second round of the 1995 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks. He played in only seven NBA games before deciding to move on to the CBA’s Grand Rapids Mackers. He went back to Purdue to finish his degree in 2000 and was then hired as an assistant coach under Gene Keady later that season. He spent seven years as an assistant on the Boilermakers staff before he accepted the head coaching job at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference.

After three very successful years in Springfield, including two NIT births, Martin was offered the head coach position at Tennessee. In three seasons in Knoxville he took the Volunteers to two NIT births and then a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014. The following offseason Martin changed jobs once again, accepting the California head coaching gig in Berkeley. The 2015 Golden Bears, led by star freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, put together a 23-win season and a four-seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite losing in the first round, they began this year ranked in the top 25 and are currently fourth in the Pac-12 behind top ten opponents Oregon, Arizona and UCLA.

Even though Martin has bounced around quite a bit, he’s shown he can succeed at every program he’s been apart of. Except for his very first year as a head coach at Missouri State, a Cuonzo-led team has never suffered a sub-.500 record. His overall record as a head coach is an impressive 171-94, which has included a CIT championship, an NIT championship, and multiple NCAA tournament appearances. At only 45 years old, Martin will definitely be one of the most coveted options for the Illini to pursue should they let John Groce go this offseason.

Illinois Connections

This is a big plus for Martin as opposed to other potential candidates. Martin was born in East St. Louis and played alongside LaPhonso Ellis at Lincoln High School on his way to two IHSA state championships. He played in the IHSA tournament three years in a row and collected almost 200 points in the tournament as a high school player. In 2007 Martin, along with Ellis, were voted two of the 100 Legends of the IHSA Boys Basketball Tournament. Given his stellar high school career and strong ties to East St. Louis, Cuonzo brings a very local connection that few other Illini coaching candidates can offer. He knows the area well and that can definitely be used to his advantage on the recruiting trail.

Three Pros

1. The recruits will (most likely) stay

Speaking of recruits, Illinois’ 2017 class is currently first in the Big Ten and top ten in the nation, which is one of the biggest worries when it comes to John Groce and his assistants getting released at the end of the year. Four-star point guard Trent Frazier has said that “his guy Groce” needs to be at Illinois when he comes here. But if the Illini manage to land a top-tier candidate like Martin he might be able to keep Frazier. Da’Monte Williams and Javon Pickett would likely stay on board too, given Martin’s strong recruiting presence and high-profile recruiting victories. As for five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon, I’ll touch on that situation below. Another interesting thing to consider: would highly-touted recruit Charlie Moore, whom the Illini were in on, follow Martin from Cal to the Illini?

2. Martin knows the area well

As mentioned above, another huge key to recruiting is having a good reputation in the area you recruit in. Martin knows the Chicagoland and St. Louis areas very well, having grown up in East St. Louis. He can make some noise in Chicago in a way that Groce never could, and he has a very good reputation amongst high schools in the state. Like Lovie Smith, Martin is a guy who commands respect and attention when he comes to visit recruits, and that’s a huge piece to the puzzle that few other candidates can offer. As well as knowing the Illinois recruiting landscape well, Martin also knows the Big Ten well. He was an assistant at Purdue for eight years, so he’s very aware of the style of play Big Ten teams bring to the table and knows his way around the conference very well.

3. He’s a great coach

This might seem obvious, but it’s a point that can’t be overstated for Illini fans; Martin has only one sub-.500 season in his career as a head coach. His last six years as a coach have seen his teams finish in their conference standings as follows: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 8th, 3rd. Except for his first year at Cal when he finished eighth in the Pac-12 (the Golden Bears still had a 19-15 record), Martin has had extremely strong finishes in conference play. That’s something Illinois fans are not used to seeing under Groce. It’s been a long time since the Illini have strung together Big Ten finishes like Cuonzo has; I think the fanbase would take 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 3rd for five years in a heartbeat.

Three Cons

1. Losing Jamall Walker

While this isn’t necessarily a con specific to Cuonzo, this is still an underrated blow to the program that might take place if Groce is fired. It’s a strong assumption that Martin will bring his preferred staff of assistants with him to Illinois, and Walker is probably not one of those guys. It’s well known that Walker almost single-handedly won over Jeremiah Tilmon. Walker has made a big imprint on the recruiting trail in Illinois and has probably been the best recruiter on the staff except for Groce himself. When the head coach is fired it typically means his assistants are released along with him. I can’t think of many instances where an assistant stays on a staff after their head basketball coach is let go. That might mean losing Tilmon or other recruits if Martin’s staff can’t convince them to stay on board.

2. Money

Cuonzo just agreed to a contract extension through the 2021 season in California. That means it won’t be easy to draw him away without offering a hefty sum. And on top of whatever Whitman will need to offer to Martin, you also need to take into consideration the fact that Groce will need to be bought out too. Groce’s remaining buyout, on top of the new coach’s salary, will add up to a large amount of money. I have no doubt that if Illinois picks the right guy for the job, the donors will back it. But it’s still a large sum to be negotiating with and it needs to be taken into consideration when selecting coaching candidates with high-profile jobs like Martin.

I really can’t think of a third con. Martin is the ideal option on the table in my opinion.

Expert Opinion

Speaking of opinions, Vlad Belo of the SBNation site California Golden Blogs weighed in on the likelihood of Martin moving on from Cal:

I can't speak for all Bears fans, but most of the ones I know really love the energy that Cuonzo has brought to the program and think he's been a fantastic hire thus far. He's an extremely high-character person, and from all indications runs the type of program befitting the top public university in the country. His kids are all solid individuals and real student-athletes.

On the basketball side, he's stepped up the program’s recruiting in a big way, landing 5-star talent such as Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, and while the 2017 class has had some misses, we're very hopeful for 2018. Last year, Cal had an undefeated home schedule (18-0) and ended up with a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament, its highest seed in school history. If Groce is on his way out at Illinois, I wouldn't be surprised if the Illini reached out to Martin. In fact, I'd be surprised if Illinois didn't, given (1) Martin's Big Ten pedigree, (2) his Midwestern ties, (3) his strong recruiting reputation generally and particularly in Chicago, and (4) his history of putting teams in the NCAA tournament quickly after taking over as mentioned above.

As for the likelihood Illinois could hire him away, I can't really proclaim to know what Martin's inclinations are or what Illinois could offer vis-a-vis California. Martin seems to love it here and he is not on the hot seat like he was when he left Tennessee. But that said, he's from East St. Louis, just couple hours down the road from Champaign, so it’s a possibility.

TCR Opinion

Vlad gives a great take on the likelihood of Martin leaving Cal to come to Champaign, and even though most of the Golden Bears fanbase knows that Cuonzo loves California, “coming home” is always an alluring option for a head coach. Speaking realistically, Martin’s name pops up most frequently in the rumor circles as a potential Groce replacement, and one of his assistants, Tracy Webster, was seen at Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith’s basketball game last week:

This certainly isn’t a solid indication that Martin is coming to Illinois, but the fact that one of his assistants is scouting the Illini’s recruiting prospects certainly shows that there might be something to the rumors that Cuonzo is interested. Right now, if Groce is let go at the end of the season, I’d put the likelihood of Martin coming to Champaign pretty high out of the potential candidates. His ties to the midwest and his rumored interest in the job along with his ability to recruit makes him an ideal candidate for Josh Whitman to try and hire. I would personally be thrilled if Martin were named head coach at Illinois. It will be extremely interesting to see how this situation develops as the season draws to a close.

Have thoughts on Cuonzo Martin potentially becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!