Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rebuiling Ruined Programs

The Illini are off to a strong start in the Big Ten, at least according to the win column. Their games so far have been adventurous, with an overtime win against Northwestern, an ugly but dominating win over Iowa, and what may be this season's signature, a come-from-behind win at Indiana.

While there is lots of room for improvement, the Illini have quite a bit going for them -- young talent, seasoned conference veterns, the ability to shoot free throws (at least compared to a couple years ago), a stronger Mike Tisdale who can hold his own in the Big Ten paint, team chemistry that allows the leading scorer/point guard to come off the bench, solid minutes from a guy also values his college education, and much more. [Note to team: For our health and blood pressure level, your fans would appreciate it if the double-digit trailing thing doesn't become a habit.]

But the Illini have also gotten a close-up look at the rebuilding process and progress of 3 Big Ten programs.

Ok, so maybe calling the Northwestern Wildcats a rebuiling project is a bit of a stretch, since they've never played in the NCAA tournament, but there's no question that Bill Carmody is certainly building a program in Evanston. Now in his 10th season, Carmody slowly but surely laid a strong foundation for a tough basketball team. The Wildcats and their Princeston-style offense have become a tough opponent both at home and on the road in the conference, and Carmody has taken them from a perennial gimme-game to the brink of entering the Dance.

How? Well, he's relied on smart kids who love basketball (after all, he is at Northwestern), internationaly recruiting and a system that helps equalize talent differences between his team and others. He's got a great story going.

But the last two Illini opponents, Iowa and Indiana, truly are programs working to rise from the ruins of recent seasons past. Todd Lickliter and Tom Crean are both very good coaches with very different challenges in front of them.

Crean, in just his second season at Indiana, has already equaled the win total from his first season. But Lickliter, in his third season in Iowa City, still is struggling to put a Big Ten-calibur team on the floor. Why the difference?

In my opinion, Crean has a much stronger foundation to build on. The Bobby Knight legacy is strong, and (despite the opinion of many Hoosier fans) Mike Davis continued to build on it with character and quality teams. Plus, the Kelvin Sampson era was short enough to prevent too much damage to that foundation. And so, Crean can recruit both on the strength of Hoosier basketball and his own reputation for excellence at Marquette, etc. And so, he has been able to quickly find players with the talent and character to fit his program. Although the Hoosiers will still likely struggle in conference play this year, their quality of play has increased immensely, and that will pay off soon. Probably sooner than a loyal Illini fan like me would like to see. Crean will have the Hoosiers in the Big Ten title hunt in a couple years, if not sooner.

For Todd Lickliter, the job is much bigger, as the ruins are older. Iowa basketball doesn't have the kind of foundation that Lickliter wants to build on, so he is truly starting from scratch. Steve Alford, for all he accomplished as a collegiate player, built his program using something of a Bob Huggins mentality -- it doesn't matter who they are, as long as they can play. And while thugs may be good basketball players, they don't make the best student-athletes/role models/teammates. Lickliter has a history of a different kind of program. At Butler, he had an 82% graduation rate of players. He found talent with character that could excel at that level.

But his philosophy apparently hasn't sat well with existing players, as he's faced with transfers even as he struggles to recruit his kind of player with the talent to compete at the Big Ten level. Somehow, playing basketball in Iowa City just doesn't have the same wide draw that playing basketball in Bloomington, Ind., has. For these reasons, among others, Lickliter will need a few more years to build the type of program he wants to have in Iowa City. If the Hawkeyes give him time, he has the ability to build a very competitive basketball program (as much as this Illini fan hates to admit it). But he will need a few more years to recruit and instill his basketball and character values on the program. On the bright side for the Illini, that means that Iowa will be a slightly easier Big Ten game over the next couple years...and given the talent and familiarity in the conference, that's a good thing.

Given the success of the Golden Gophers and Wolverines, the Big Ten could be considered the poster-conference for the rebuilding of ruined programs. Find a talented coach, preferably with quality character and give him the time and support he needs to succeed.

Oh, and as the 7th-winningest program of the previous decade, we really can't consider our Illini as part of that group...

Up next, Penn State, another one of those programs that is steadily improving over the years...

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