It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. Despite a good road win at Northwestern, the Illini still find themselves in second-to-last place in the conference and 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 Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall.
Marshall’s first collegiate job came as an assistant head coach at the College of Charleston in 1988. He stayed there for eight years before getting hired at Marshall as an assistant. Two years later, he got his first head coaching gig at Winthrop (yes, the same Winthrop that beat Illinois earlier this season). In his nine seasons with the Eagles Marshall led the team to seven NCAA tournament appearances and made them a notable mid-major powerhouse. He compiled six regular season conference titles and quickly became the winningest all-time coach at Winthrop. By 2007 it was clear that Marshall was a hot commodity in the coaching industry. Some speculated he might land at NC State after their head coaching seat opened up, but Marshall remained at Winthrop until Wichita State came calling.
Marshall was named Wichita State head coach in April of 2007. In his fourth season at the helm of the program, the Shockers won the NIT championship over Alabama and from there they never looked back. They’ve been to five straight NCAA tournament appearances since, including a Final Four and a Sweet 16 run, which has made Marshall one of the most well-known mid-major coaches around. When the Crimson Tide’s head coaching position opened up, they made a strong push to hire Marshall, but he declined stating that he wanted to continue to build up Wichita State’s program.
Hardly any. Marshall, who was born in South Carolina and played high school basketball in Virginia, doesn’t have many ties to the midwest prior to his time in Wichita. He graduated from Richmond, another east coast school, before getting hired as a high school assistant at a local Virginia program. Marshall obviously has some current midwestern presence due to his success with the Shockers, but he doesn’t have that deep Chicago or Illinois-area history that other candidates we’ve written about have.
1. Success wherever he goes
He’s only coached at mid-majors, but you have to give him an enormous amount of credit; Marshall has won everywhere he’s gone. He is currently first all-time in wins at both Winthrop and Wichita State, and even took home the Naismith Coach of the Year award in 2014 after his Shockers made a surprise run to the Final Four. Even though we’ve never seen Marshall coach a big-time program, he’s made the programs he’s been at big time. Wichita State is now a great destination and a place a lot of recruits would love to be at. Marshall commands a great amount of respect from his peers due to the consistent success at several different schools, and he is clearly one of the best (if not the best) coach at the mid-major level right now.
2. Respect from recruits/players
As mentioned above, if I were a college basketball player and Marshall were announced as my next head coach, I’d be excited. He commands a great amount of respect and I think recruits really love the idea of playing for him. For some reason that feeling isn’t always mutual (see the third con below), but there’s no doubt that Marshall’s resume elevates his status as one of the best coaches in the country. Sometimes when a mid-major coach is hired at a power five program he has to earn the fans’ respect. John Groce, for instance, was known but not that well known. He had taken Ohio on an NCAA tournament run but he wasn’t a nationally-recognized name. Gregg Marshall is. People all over the country know his name, and that can’t be discounted when it comes to the impact he has on any team he coaches.
3. Stellar defense
Marshall’s teams are always really good at defense. Like, really good. The Shockers currently rank in the top fifteen in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. None of his Shocker teams have ever finished under 40th in the nation on that scale. In fact, Marshall has been apart of a national DVD series on teaching “defensive fundamentals” along with guys like Bo Ryan and Mike Krzyzewski. He calls it the “50 gap defense” and has a stern philosophy of forcing contested jump shots and keeping opposing players on the perimeter. That would be a nice change of pace from Groce’s defensive strategy, which currently ranks outside the top 60 in that same KenPom ranking. Marshall is not only a proven winner wherever he goes, but he’s also a great in-game strategist, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
1. Lack of Illini ties
Not every candidate for head coach has to be directly tied into the history of the Illinois program -- this was a discussion that came up when Lovie Smith was being hired. Still, especially in college basketball, it’s important to have a good idea of your surroundings and be familiar with other teams in your conference. Marshall has no familiarity with the Big Ten and even less familiarity with Champaign and downstate Illinois. While he has recruited in Chicago before, his lack of connections to the Illini make him one of the less-qualified guys to take over the head coaching position in terms of historical ties to the program.
2. No power five experience and rejection of previous offers
This isn’t a huge deal; many coaches have been at mid-major programs for decades and still found success in the power-five conferences too. But Marshall seems to have a certain unwillingness to jump into the “BCS-level” game; he’s turned down offers from NC State and Alabama, and has made more lateral moves from Charleston to Winthrop to Wichita State. There were also reports of Marshall strongly turning down offers from Texas, Missouri and Cal. Again, this is not a knock of Marshall. He has left an excellent mark wherever he goes. But he doesn’t seem like he’s too interested in jumping up to the Big Ten, and frankly who could blame him? His Shockers are the perennial favorites in the Missouri Valley Conference. But his decreased interest in moving from his current program means that even if Whitman were to somehow miraculously get the money to draw him here he might not accept. Marshall is very set in his ways and doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.
3. Chicago recruiting
This ties in with the first con. Marshall is not in the living rooms of four or five star recruits in the Chicagoland area. In fact, Marshall doesn’t even pay attention to the Chicago recruiting landscape, according to a Sports Illustrated article from a few years back. Here’s an interesting excerpt:
I caught up with Gregg Marshall in early July at the Nike Peach Jam, which is one of the premier events on the summer recruiting circuit. Given where we were, it was natural for me to ask Marshall about his recruiting strategy.
“I don’t know that we’re on any five-star guys,” he said. “At least I don’t think so.”
I was surprised and a little skeptical to hear this answer. So I brought up two of the consensus top players in the high school class of 2015. But Gregg Marshall didn’t know who they were. I’m not saying he didn’t know a whole lot about them or isn’t trying to recruit them. He literally did not know who they are. Seeing my surprise, Marshall shrugged and chuckled.
“We’re not a powerhouse,” he admitted. Marshall’s guys tend to be Division I transfers, JUCO transfers, and diamonds in the rough.
Obviously this strategy works well for Wichita State, but I’m not sure this type of recruiting attack (back off the “big name” guys and look for diamonds in the rough) would work at a state school like Illinois. I have my doubts about how well a guy who’s not from the midwest could recruit for the Illini.
Russell Steinberg of the SBNation site Mid Major Madness weighed in on the likelihood of Marshall moving on from Wichita:
Marshall is, besides Archie Miller, the big mid-major dream pick. Remember that he already spurned Alabama and his $3.3 million salary will make it tough to pry him from Wichita State. For context, Groce is making about half that. Logically, Marshall isn’t going to make a move any time soon and if he does, it’s going to be to a power-five program with a whole lot more going for it right now than Illinois.
While Russell’s comments about the state of Illinois basketball will make many orange and blue fans cringe, I have to agree with him. At this point in time, Illinois is not in much better shape than Alabama was when they offered Marshall. The history and program pedigree are there, but in a “what have you done for me lately” world the Illini haven’t done a whole lot. It would take an enormous amount of money to get Marshall to even pick up the phone. He seems very settled in Wichita and I’m not sure why he’d feel compelled to throw that all away for an uncertain situation in Champaign. I would put the percentage of Whitman even reaching out to Marshall very low, perhaps ten percent. That percentage goes down even further if you’re asking whether Marshall would actually pick up the phone and consider the job. There’s just no indication that he has any interest in leaving the Shockers.
Have thoughts on Gregg Marshall’s (slim) chances of becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!