I’ve somewhat given up on twitter, which frees up a lot of my time. I’ve been able to fill some of the new void with the return of Community, and GIRLS; about an hour a week. So far the rest has been used to text more often, clean my apartment intermittently, and type and re-type "John Groce" into Google.
I’m still really good at wasting time in the evening. I tell myself I will get some exercise, but instead I meander around my apartment, re-read what people have said about things I’ve written, and watch YouTube videos. I go down the expected YouTube holes every now and again: what starts as a Paul George 360 Windmill Dunk turns into Ronaldo highlights (Brazilian one, before the knee injury) which turns into R. Kelly Music Videos which turn into this:
Frank Williams began my Sunday night with a couple of no-look passes, and then Lute Olsen took over, annoying me as only a former Iowa coach with the name "Lute" could. Daylight had already faded, my back hunched further towards the floor, and I clicked through Illini Post Game Pressers from the last two years. I eventually honed in on the last four games, and watched over, and over, and over again, our fearless leader, John Groce, answer the mundane questions from reporters about his team’s recent struggles.
The frozen veggie pizza re-cooled on my desk, and forgotten sticky notes fluttered underneath the overhead fan. My phone buzzed a few times, but I was unwavering, methodical in my blank stare. My computer screen glowed into the night, and when I finally fell asleep, it wasn’t – but just had to be – moments later I awoke to the buzz of my phone at 4:00 a.m.; a late text from an early riser. I tried flipping the pillow, and turning over on my back to fall back asleep. I failed and watched the leader of our Illini talk some more.
Because of things I’ve read in the last two weeks, because of conversations with fellow Illini fans in the last two weeks, and because of my own opinions on the slide down the tube of despair we all seem to be on the last two weeks, I wanted to write about John Groce this week. But I didn’t really have a thesis until I awoke at 4:00 a.m.
The Illini Basketball Team is on a four-game losing streak, which feels inevitably like a 7 game losing streak. 2-7 in the Big Ten by February 5th. I hold out hope they can win one of these next three, but they don’t look like they can.
The four previous games include a blow-out loss at Wisconsin, one of the worst Illini losses in history at Northwestern (maybe not that bad after the Northwestern win at Indiana), a yearly drumming by Purdue, and a sad loss to Michigan State.
If we begin with Wisconsin, we find Coach Groce resolute, and eager to move on:
Groce mentioned in his opening statement that the "responsibility falls on me and the captains" as he talked through how the Illini reacted to the Badgers first half highlight real. His face grinned and bore what his voice stated: sad, strange statistics. His hands resided under the table for extended periods of time. For parts of his initial statement, Groce nodded his head from side to side, squinting during his recap of his team’s performance. I don’t think he was searching for the reasons for the loss in his head, I think he was organizing them.
"I’m confident our guys will respond. We've got great kids."
After Northwestern, Groce was only slightly bothered.
"I’ve never taken a guy out for missing a shot in six years."
After Purdue, we received the outburst many were asking for after Northwestern:
"It’s unacceptable. They were tougher than us physically, and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls."
After Michigan State eased into their sixth conference victory, Groce retracted to an understanding, thoughtful tone:
"Certainly wasn’t due to a lack of being tough, or effort, or want to tonight."
There is an exasperated sarcasm that I reserve for Fighting Illini losing streaks. I roll my eyes extra wide at missed layups and shake my head at missed 1-and-1s with a tired, "I told you so" to myself. I use that sarcasm as a way to cope with the inevitability of retracting my expectations and understanding that this is a team not destined to compete at the top of the Big Ten. This Illini team, whether fair or not, has/had expectations. Every Illini team does. I constantly reiterate to those around me that Illinois has the 13th most wins all time in the history of Division 1 College Basketball. Sure, St. John’s and Temple are at the top as well. But, I’m convinced we are the greatest College Basketball Program to never win a NCAA Championship. Again, I’ve rethought my expectations for this team, toned them back a bit, and just want to see our players play up to their potential more often than not.
I think, I think Groce is an excellent Coach–a lucky fourth choice for Athletic Director Mike Thomas and all Illini fans–as he conveys two themes that I like to hear someone convey:
First, as the four above videos show, he unwaveringly supports his players in public. As I sip Busch Lights too fast, feeling bloated and fed up with the offense after a game, Groce sticks his lower lip out, and defends his guys. Leading questions about Nnanna’s shot be damned – Groce wants him shooting. Not once in those four videos did Groce call out a specific player for not hustling, not hitting gimme’s without praising him two times over. In the Purdue game he called out the entire team for not being tough enough, but by the middle of the line of questions, he was praising Rayvonte Rice for his work in getting healthy, and Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill for their effort, passion, and aggressiveness.
Second, he believes, and pushes on all of us, the ideology that the team just must get better everyday. Both just and must appear in italics, as a nod to how impossible that is to do. We’ve all been there. Sometimes you aren’t as strong as you were yesterday, sometimes you don’t swim as fast, sometimes you don’t write as coherently. What you hope for, is that you are better in the long run. As a fan of the Illini, I try to hope for the same thing for our guys. Manage expectations, just want the team to be better in respect to their competition at the end of the year. Get better more consistently.
Where I am beginning to question Groce a little bit, is in his acceptance of the failures of the offense. In the last four games, Illinois has scored 70, 43, 58, and 62 points, respectively. They failed to reach 30 points for 5 of those 8 halves. Teams slump, players miss shots. That seems to be the "Mantra of Groce" these past four games. Groce believes in a "let it rip" organization. I believe in a "let it rip" organization. I don’t think Groce has a problem with ownership. However, I’m scared that he, as we all do, is getting caught up in his own philosophy. Player’s miss shots, but how do we get them to make shots? Are our players just bad at making shots?
The offense is one of low assists and low three-point percentage. That’s isn’t all that bad when you have guys like Rayvonte and Tracy and Joe, slashers who excel in traffic around the rim. Rayvonte is an essential part of the team, but would he excel more if his usage wasn’t so apparently high (27.2 percent)? He currently leads the Big Ten in field goals made and field goal attempts, a full 19 shot attempts ahead of Indiana’s Ferrell, currently second in field goal attempts. He’s attempted 92 threes, shooting nearly 33 percent. That’s not that bad. And Tracy: why is he shooting only 37 percent, and averaging the exact same amount of assists (3.4) as he did last year, even though he is now the team's true point guard, no longer wrestling DJ and Brandon for the reigns?
Maybe I'm asking the wrong questions. I probably am. Half-heartedly criticizing the two best players on the team maybe isn't the best way to go. Plus, seven new players. Seven.
There are two separate entities to a team, the players and the coach. In college basketball especially, the dividing crevices are smoothed over, and "we" is mentioned more. The coach is not only a coach, but a mentor, a father figure, a friend, a hard-nosed general. Contrary to the NBA, where Brad Stevens currently coaches a player only four years younger than him, In college, players are just kids, away from home for the first time, feeling anxiety about school, friends, and the future. They appear in our lives for one, two, three, four, and maybe five years, then are gone. The coaches are what we hold on to. Michigan State is Izzo, not Mateen Cleaves. Duke is Coach K, not Shane Battier. Whereas a passing mention of the Chicago Bulls almost forces the mind to think of Michael Jordan (much more than Phil Jackson). In college, coaching is seen as the essential: the elmer’s glue to the art project.
So coaches get more credit for wins, which they probably should, and maybe they should get more blame for losses.
That's a big time blow-hard sentence. I’m generalizing with all the expectation talk, even pushing my own experience on the multitude of Illini fans, fine. But i’ve stared into the rafters of Assembly Hall, and a National Championship is absent. We are looking for someone to take us to the promised land. Retracting that thought for the past four or five years has kind of sucked.
When he was introduced to the Illini, with lights beaming down him, with a hat that fit awkwardly on his head and shed a strange shadow on his eyes, Groce said all the things that he was supposed to. He began with the statement:
"Thank you. Obviously our family is excited to be a part of this once in a lifetime opportunity. And I really mean that."
After a couple of thank you’s, he proceeded to explain why it was a life-time opportunity, mentioning the Flyin’ Illini and 2005 team to cheers from the crowd. He slowly but fervently explained that he wanted Illinois.
It was not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Lon Kruger, it wasn’t a lifetime opportunity for Bill Self, and it just didn't work out for Bruce Weber. I’m looking for a National Championship, consistency, and a coach who will stay. That is a MOUNTAIN of expectations. I have a gut feeling (the ravioli I ate isn’t sitting well, I’ll admit) that Groce is here to stay, as long as we want him for.
As I began a few paragraphs before, we can’t score. Anemic is a term that was once cool but now Sportscenter Anchors use it. I wanted to pause to point that out. Back to our offense. It’s bad. Things need to change. What happened to Nnanna? Why do we miss so many bunnies? We had the 10 best players on the court against Northwestern and we scored 43 points. Why?
I don’t have an explanation, if I did I promise I would have brought it up a long time ago. I can’t even accurately access what’s wrong without being overly simplistic and saying, "we can’t score." Eventually, if this continues, I’d like one. Whether it’s as simple as, "our guys weren’t good enough," or as intricate and thorough as Grantland's Zach Lowe column about the Pistons bad play. If this keeps up, I want one.
A "let it rip" organization is fine. I like it. I like that our coach entrusts his players to take the shots they think they can make. I’m still with you Groce, I enjoy your press conferences. I think your speech to your guys after Miami last year isn’t talked about enough. But, as I scroll Illinois Loyalty, as I talk with friends, whispers of doubt are beginning. Sure, do what we do, just do it better.