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Fighting Illini Basketball Provides Athletic Director Josh Whitman His First Real Test

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Hiring Lovie Smith will stand as Josh Whitman's biggest move, but the next one he makes with Illinois basketball may be his most telling.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the show, Mr. Whitman. After a first two days packed with adventure and unprecedented excitement, Josh Whitman is figuring out what it's like to be an athletic director at a major university. His entrance was pure art, flipping the morale of the program (or lack thereof) on its head with a move that instantly vaulted Illinois out of the support group of perennial cellar-dweller football schools.

But as an AD, your job isn't to be an artist. You don't always make the decisions. More often than not, the decisions make you.

The opening act of Whitman's AD-a-palooza was to endorse head coach John Groce, at least for the next season. After a choppy finish to the season (which was nothing unexpected) things seemed fine until sweet, little, probably-40-pound Jaylon Tate got charged with the monstrous act of domestic battery. Then, not one freaking week later, Tate's high school teammate Kendrick Nunn was arrested on similar charges.

Beyond the fact that their actions point to a sheerly epic stupidity, they now put Whitman in a pickle, which to be honest, is where ADs get paid so much to be.

Groce of course looks terrible in all this. After compiling a list of four player arrests from the group of 13 he entered last offseason with, he looks like a man whose players feel no accountability toward him. Perhaps he loosened the leash because he knew his guys had it tough enough, losing all those games. Perhaps he held team meetings in which he screamed and pleaded that his guys get their act together. No matter his actions, the results are all that matters: Illinois basketball has a problem with acting criminal — his Illinois basketball.

So Whitman and Groce are cornered. Just a few days ago you were a unified front professing that this program was fine. Darius Paul's and Leron Black's arrests, despite both being very embarrassing to Illinois, were far enough apart and from different enough guys that they could be considered coincidence. Tate and Nunn throwing their stupidity into the mix has changed the equation. This program is not fine. It has a discipline problem. The legal process may ultimately decide that both Nunn and Tate are innocent, but if you keep getting accused by women of hitting them, that still constitutes a problem. I went to U of I; no one ever accused me of domestic violence. Even if these charges "go away," they didn't exactly fall from the sky.

Whitman and Groce have three options: fire Groce, toughen up on the players, or wait out the PR storm and pretend things are fine.

The problem is, none of these routes are truly right.

If you fire John Groce, you can say it's strictly a discipline issue. You can say that, but no one should believe you if you do. If John Groce was winning games, the spin would be totally different. That's not as unfair as it sounds, though. If Groce builds a winning program, it's more on the part of the players to keep themselves in a position to meet its standards. If he imposes a strong sense of discipline in his players, they're gaining something from the experience even if they are losing. If he neither wins nor keeps discipline in place, then the whole program begins to look a lot more like a waste of everyone's time, money, and emotions. So if you fire him, you're using a non-basketball issue to make a basketball move. It's not unreasonable, but it will make you look somewhat dishonest because you did just endorse this guy a couple weeks ago, and when you present it all as an off-court firing, you're presenting an unbalanced equation. The only way to fire Groce correctly is to acknowledge that his lack of success on the court was part of it. Furthermore, firing Groce is maybe a little too protective of the players, and sends the message that their mistakes were not their fault, which does not build up accountability within the program but destroys it.

What a mess right? Perhaps a show of force against the players is the best way out. Tout your program's behavioral standards while kicking guys out the door. This wasn't an issue with Darius Paul, a rotation big and failed attempt at a legacy recruit. It was easier with Leron Black, a younger individual making a totally dumb but eventually forgivable mistake. If you have one guy who needs to get right, it can be the right thing to do to rally around him, rehabilitate him, and get him to get his act together. Here's where Tate and Nunn have really screwed things up. They've turned this single act into a broad movement of Illinois basketball players acting like idiots. Now you have three bad apples, one of which is arguably your most promising prospect, and the other two bear vital importance because of their ties to Chicago and specifically Simeon Career Academy, a well of talent you want permanent access to. If you keep all three guys away from your locker room, you have a much less talented locker room. Groce, entering a make-or-break season, is set up to fail here anyway. If your path forward is too bleak because of your strong actions on these guys, it's arguably a waste of a season to let these wounds fester.

Sometimes a wait-and-see approach is the only option, though. It almost appears to be that way now. The more time you let pass, the more people will start viewing these indiscretions as individual cases of individual mistakes, as opposed to a program-wide issue. You can take the route that a lot of schools take: legal damage control, public information control, add winning and — poof! — make bad stuff disappear. If Whitman truly believes in Groce, and believes that this year is the beginning of a tremendous turnaround, then waiting and seeing may be the most prudent approach to this firestorm. Rehabilitate Leron Black's image, and work like hell to absolve Nunn and Tate. Keep the rest of the players on an extremely short leash so nothing further worsens the image of the program, and pray for a very long spring, summer, and fall. What does this cost you? First of all, it's counter to the reputation Illinois wants to have. It wants to be a place where you know how you can and cannot act, not a harbor for moral gray areas. Whitman himself earned the reputation on his first day of being swift to act. It's easy to maintain that when you plan the action. It's much harder to do when dealing with what the job throws at you. Whitman would be forced to walk back the superhero image he cultivated in record time. It slows the momentum that had been Illinois athletics' greatest strength just two weeks ago.

Firing Groce might bring the most fan satisfaction, and toughening up on the players may be the best course to protect the program image for now, and waiting out the storm may give you the best chance to succeed next season, but none of these options is a true win. So what is the true win? There is none. In this case, you're simply picking how you lose. How Whitman handles this quagmire will ultimately tell us more about the athletics program he's shaping Illinois to be than his more-memorable first days.