The Illinois Fighting Illini men's basketball program has had quite the roller coaster of events happen these past few months. Some good, the commitment of 2017 recruit Da'Monte Williams, son of former Illini great Frank Williams, but mostly, the events have been really really bad.
Leron Black started the roller coaster by getting arrested for pulling a knife on a bouncer back in February after an altercation at a night club in Urbana... not smart. Next, and within days of each other, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn are both arrested on allegations of domestic abuse, you heard me right, DOMESTIC abuse. Something that nobody should take lightly! All of these crimes, which is a word no coach wants to deal with, come after a plague of devastating injuries to the program throughout the season. Fifth year Senior Tracy Abrams, after sitting out the entire 2014-2015 season with a torn ACL, was sidelined again with a torn left Achilles' tendon just weeks into summer workouts with the team. During the season, multiple players go down with minor injuries, but 2 key big men go down for a substantial amount of time. Leron Black, ready to start his super sophomore campaign, goes down, right before Big Ten play, with a knee injury, that nagged him all season. This was a little unsettling but we had another big man we could lean on... but then... Mike Thorne gets hurt. The fifth year graduate transfer was poised to make a huge impact for the Illini frontcourt and help with the gap left by Nnanna Egwu, but sustains an injury during the Emerald Coast Classic versus the Iowa State Cyclones, and then is permanently benched when complications with his health lingered towards the end of the season. Needless to say, John Groce and the University of Illinois has had a pretty rough 2015-2016 men's basketball season, but all seems to be coming back to order.
After his injury prone season, and with a little love from the NCAA, Mike Thorne was allowed a sixth year of eligibility thanks to a medical hardship waiver, allowing Thorne to have another year with the Illini. Along with Thorne, Abrams is currently awaiting his medical "red-shirt", although it has not yet been granted, his shouldn't be an issue, and adding him back to the roster gives the Illini another piece to a potentially good veteran group. With these two story lines coming to an end, all three of the court cases are now resolved as well. Black and his attorney agree to a deal that would place him in a diversionary program and potentially see his felony aggravated assault charge reduced to a misdemeanor, Tate and his attorney prove to the courts that there is no evidence of foul play, thus leaving the judge to dismiss Jaylon's case altogether, but then there was one. Kendrick's case didn't end as well... After pleading guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor battery, in which the junior will receive 18 months of court supervision and 100 hours of community service, it was announced a few days later that Nunn will be released from the program. The programs number 2 scorer averaged 15.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, and 1.7 APG, and averaged just under 50% from the field. But with the allegation against Nunn being too severe to overlook, Josh Whitman and John Groce made the difficult decision to release him. Leading me to ask this question, was this Whitman's first display of stern discipline, and shows just how exactly he's going to run this athletic department?
I would not want to be Josh Whitman right now. Within 3 months of holding the AD role at Illinois, he has had some great experiences: hiring Lovie Smith, and seeing the majority of spring sports doing very well in their respective seasons, but the men's basketball program has provided enough stress and obstacles to fold even the best Athletic Director. But Whitman has overcome all of these issues, with a level head and firm hand, and I applaud him for this. He has done an incredible job of letting issue work themselves to a point in which he has all the necessary information, and then will make the correct choice for not only the university, but also the program and the individual athlete. He has stepped in front of numerous members of the media and laid everything out to everyone and has been very transparent as to how the university will handle things, it's almost majestic. He has been the best thing to happen to the University of Illinois in a long time. Bravo Josh, bravo! But where's John Groce in all of this? There may be certain things Whitman doesn't want Groce to come out and say, but we all remember the press conference, and just how shrug-of-the-shoulder Groce was... so why doesn't he come out and speak? But could his absence actually help his case?
John Groce's job is in question, there's no doubt about that, from the lack of wins to inability to closeout games, from his inability to close on a top recruit to his team's character issues, he hasn't displayed very often that he has what it takes to be a Big Ten caliber coach, but has Whitman helped here? Whitman's actions have almost started a new culture within the University of Illinois. He is displaying to the community, to potential recruits and their families that U of I is a place of integrity, of discipline, and has the intangibles to win if they set these standards, and follow them. I feel, and I know a lot of people have expressed, that because of these recent issues with the men's basketball team, and Whitman's response/actions to resolving them, it has shined a brighter, more positive, light on the University and the program. His leadership, and ability to resolve a problem gracefully has provided a lot of positive press for the University of Illinois, and I think, gives people a reason to be hopeful and positive again. What's the future of John Groce? No one realistically knows, but at this point, now that the storm has been subdued by Whitman, he can now focus on getting this team healthy, bringing in a respectable 2017 class, and making a damn NCAA tournament... PLEASE!