We've officially reached the end of Year 4 of the John Groce era, and new athletic director Josh Whitman has given Groce a vote of confidence. The question of whether or not he should continue to coach here has been divisive among this fanbase, and between the calls for Groce's job and Whitman's refusal to waver from his statement, this issue is not quite as cut and dry as it may appear. Let's try to understand arguments from both sides.
Stay: Groce Can't Be Blamed For This Year's Roster Collapse
The 2015-2016 roster as assembled by John Groce as of last July:
1: Tracy Abrams, Jaylon Tate
2. Kendrick Nunn, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Aaron Jordan, Alex Austin
3. Malcolm Hill, DJ Williams
4. Leron Black, Darius Paul
5. Mike Thorne, Maverick Morgan, Michael Finke
The roster for the Purdue game:
1. Khalid Lewis, (Jaylon Tate barely plays now)
2. Coleman-Lands, Austin
3. Nunn, Jordan
4. Hill, Williams
5. Morgan, Finke
Perhaps you could blame Groce for giving Darius Paul a second chance after his first time being dismissed from the team, and you could blame him for failing to develop Jaylon Tate or failing to recruit another point guard. But Black, Thorne and Abrams were supposed to play major minutes and the roster could not absorb their loss. Black and Thorne were our best rebounders, and -- shockingly -- in their absence the team struggled mightily to rebound. It's hard to imagine this team wouldn't have won more games if fully healthy.
Go: Groce Has Only Recruited Jaylon Tate To Play PG Out Of High School
If we're talking about staying or going right now, Te'Jon Lucas and Da'Monte Williams have no bearing since they haven't played for Illinois. Jaylon Tate remains the only point guard John Groce has recruited out of high school to play for the Illinois Fighting Illini, which means he overlooked the players like Glynn Watson and Fred Van Vleet in his failed quests to land studs like Demetrius Jackson, Jalen Brunson, and Jawun Evans. Having no high school point guards for 2014 and 2015 would have put us in a precarious position even if our one guy from 2013 had been Dee Brown, but with Jaylon "4 for 46" Tate at the point, each missed guard is a crushing blow.
Stay: The 2017 Class Is Loaded With Local Talent, Presenting A Huge Opportunity For Groce
With Javon Pickett on board, Groce started the 2017 class off with a Belleville East player, but things heated up when Da'Monte Williams committed. The Illinois legacy could be a game-changing recruit at a position of need (point guard) and has caught the attention of 5-star forward Jeremiah Tilmon. With several other Illinois players in our sights and the best player Groce has recruited from our state already onboard, 2017 could be the year Groce lands the class that changes the program momentum.
Go: The 2017 Class Is Loaded With Local Talent, Presenting A Huge Opportunity For Groce (To Make Numerous Final Lists And Ultimately Not Land Anyone)
We've been down this road so many times. I can't speak for Da'Monte Williams, but I can't imagine any player in the country is more committed to their destination school regardless of coaching changes than the son of Illini legend Frank Williams. A high-profile coaching hire could build the relationships with our 2017 targets quickly enough to win them over and actually close on them. Over the course of last year, I got to the final round of several job interviews. It's nice to be considered that strongly, but ultimately you still don't have the job. Podium finishes for recruiting are the same way.
Stay: Groce Is Still Young And Has Tremendous Coaching Upside, As Evidenced By His Prior Resume
At 44 years old, John Groce is indeed in the early stages of his head coaching career. He spent five years as an assistant to Thad Matta at Ohio State before taking over the Ohio Bobcats in 2008. In 2010, he led the Bobcats to a MAC tournament championship and later upset 3-seeded Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament as a 14 seed. In 2012, Ohio again won the MAC tournament and knocked off 4-seeded Michigan on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. Groce finished 85-56 at Ohio with a 34-30 conference record. As a young, charismatic, high-energy leader, John Groce is different from Bill Cubit in that Cubit's days of growing as a head coach were likely far behind him.
Go: Groce The Tactician Needs Improvement That He Hasn't Shown
I am much more of a football enthusiast than a basketball fan, and as a result, I'm not particularly well-versed in basketball X's and O's. I'll be the first to admit that. However, the offense under John Groce has never looked particularly beautiful. To my uneducated eyes, it appears that we largely run high ball screens to set up another high ball screen to set up another high ball screen to set up another high ball screen...and so forth. Open shots are few and far between, and we struggle to get to the line. Offensive rebounding is nonexistent, as Groce seems to prioritize transition defense so heavily over it that second chance points are astonishingly rare. Defensively, Groce's first three squads were quite good, but this year teams are able to drive to the rim at will or find wide open cutters under the hoop. After seeing what the defense looks like now, I no longer credit the defensive success of prior squads to Groce. Instead, I have an even greater appreciation for Nnanna Egwu's ability to keep the paint uncontested.
So, a typical possession will look like this: Someone bounces the ball inbounds to our point guard, who lets it bounce until about half-court so as not to use much clock (this is one area in which we excel). Point guard dribbles to the top of the key, where nobody is within 5 feet of him because they have no respect for his shooting ability. High ball screen. High ball screen. High ball screen. Left and right and left and right we go, until we kick out to a wing who shoots a contested three. As soon as it leaves his hands, the whole team runs back on defense, conceding the rebound. The shot misses, and the other team rebounds. At some point, the lane is left open, and a guard drives and either lays it up or kicks out for a wide-open three.
It's truly not a thing of beauty. Additionally, since upsetting Michigan at Ohio, Groce has only beaten them once. As a proud Illinois fan living an hour from Ann Arbor, I find this deeply annoying.
Stay: Groce Is An Intense, Fiery Competitor Who's Been Able To Win Against The Odds By Motivating His Team
This has been exemplified most recently by the intensity the team had against Iowa, but the team also beat a very good Purdue squad, beat a top-10 Maryland team while shorthanded last year (and beat MSU on the road) and knocked off No. 1 Indiana in his first year to end a losing streak. In addition, the intensity can be pretty fun and endearing. Case in point: the timeout.
Go: That Stuff Is Only Cute When You're Winning
I can't help but notice that we seem to be getting less and less favorable fouls. This is just speculation, but I think Groce's repeated outbursts have made him a bit of a persona non grata among the league referees, and our team is suffering for it in very subtle ways. In addition, for every time Illinois has seemed supernaturally motivated, there's a game where they've seemed bizarrely disinterested, most notoriously against Michigan in last year's Big Ten Tournament with a potential invite to the Big Dance on the line. If you have a habit of being seen making Thomas the Tank Engine O-faces and you lose 19 games in a season at Illinois, you begin to look ridiculous. Case in point:
Stay: Making The Coaching Change Worthwhile Will Take Money The University Might Not Be Ready To Spend Right Now
Josh Whitman clearly had sold University administrators on his plan to make football relevant again, because he was allowed to pay $1 million to send Bill Cubit packing (can we call him Million Dollar Bill now?), offer a 6-year, $21 million dollar contract for Lovie Smith (albeit heavily back-loaded) and present Smith with a $4 million salary pool to hire assistants. This huge coup proved that our administration, though historically stingy with money towards athletics, was ready to put up big money to quit half-assing major college football. The swiftness of the move showed that it was meticulously planned and had already been sold to everyone.
Whitman likely does not have a plan as well-developed as that for basketball, and though the early returns on Lovie Smith are promising from a revenue standpoint, another major expenditure in the same month may be a very tough sell, especially considering that Groce is nowhere near as damaging to fan interest and recruiting as Cubit. Whitman would likely face an uphill battle selling the Board of Trustees on another buyout and big money hire so soon after Lovie Smith, especially since it probably wasn't part of the plan he originally sold them. This could leave him without the ability to attract the kind of name Illinois would need to quickly return to relevance.
Go: From A Distance, It Looks Like Groce Is Losing Control
After a promising start and an NCAA tournament win, Groce's Illini were a bubble team the past two years. Now he's managed to tie a program record for losses and lead us to a third straight season without being part of the Big Dance for the first time since 1980. John Groce was 8 years old the last time this happened. Throw in the Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby suspensions from last year, Aaron Cosby's strange tenure here in general (redshirted a year, was bewilderingly ineffective, got suspended, transferred again), several suspensions this year (Coleman-Lands has spent time in the doghouse for unspecified reasons) and then frame a 15-19 (5-13) season with the arrest of three scholarship players and it looks like a deeply troubled program. It could be that John Groce is the unluckiest man in the history of basketball, but for three of your 13 scholarship players to be arrested for three unrelated incidents in one calendar year during which your team posted the most losses in program history requires something to be wrong.
Stay: Josh Whitman Said So
After seeing how Josh Whitman handled the football coaching situation, I am not in a position to question his judgment. If Josh Whitman thinks John Groce should stay, then I must assume he has good reasons. True, he has probably been plotting to revitalize the football program first and foremost, but he knows how important basketball is at the University of Illinois.
Go: NCAA Tournament Coverage Is Making Me Want To Cry
The Big Dance starts this week and for the third straight year, Illini fans are trying to figure out who to root for. Two former Illini coaches have protected seeds (Bill Self's 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks and Lon Kruger's 2-seed Oklahoma Sooners), while Bruce Weber's Kansas State Wildcats will stay home and recover from a tough season. My bracket will not be threatened by homerism this year, and I won't have to schedule my life around one of 16 different games going on in one day.
I hate not being part of it, and all the buzz and coverage is just killing me because the Fighting Illini are nowhere, unless it's highlights of Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland or Purdue crushing us. I just can't deal with it, even though I've known it's coming for a long time. Would a knee-jerk coach firing make me feel a little better in a very shallow way? Probably.
Conclusion: We Have To Trust Josh Whitman
I don't like sitting here with no game to look forward to, and neither do you. However, we have an athletic director who is so far making strong, confident moves and whose press conferences have won me over like nothing else I've ever seen in sports. I don't think he's blind to the plight of our once-glorious basketball program, and I have faith that he can turn it around, but I might have to accept that the first real step might not come as soon as I'd like. Perhaps we'll know more after the NCAA Tournament concludes without us once again, but the measure of solace I can take from a basketball perspective is that I can trust Josh Whitman with the future of the program.