Following another embarrassing road loss, this time to a Michigan squad that they handled at home just ten days earlier, the Illini are looking at another season without an NCAA tournament bid. The last time Illinois missed the Big Dance four straight years? Jimmy Carter was president and the Miracle on Ice hadn’t yet occurred. That’s right, the last time the Illini didn’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday for four seasons in a row was from 1976 to 1980.
Flash forward nearly 40 years and John Groce’s team might match that record. But there’s a lot of debate as to whether or not the fifth-year coach deserves another season in Champaign, given the stellar recruiting class he and his staff have pulled down for the 2017-18 season. The class, ranked eleventh in the nation and first in the Big Ten, features five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon and four-star guards Trent Frazier, DaMonte Williams and Javon Pickett. There’s a lot of pressure on Illinois AD Josh Whitman to keep Groce on board for a sixth season, given that several members of this class may look to go elsewhere if Groce is fired. Trent Frazier has as much as said so:
Don't get rid of my guy , GROCE , he needs to be there when I'm there ........— Trent (@_Trentfrazier1) December 29, 2016
But if Whitman gives him one more year, how long of a leash is he really rewarding Groce with? If the primary reason for retaining him is because of the recruiting class, what if the five and four star freshmen struggle in their first year in Champaign? What if these recruits aren’t immediately ready to be impactful in conference play? That’s a completely reasonable thing to anticipate. There are plenty of highly-rated high school prospects that don’t immediately burst onto the scene. Even Duke or Kentucky's premiere prospects, such as Harry Giles or Skal Labissiere, struggled to find playing time as freshmen. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Tilmon and company won’t be immediate Big Ten stars. So then what? The fans start to chirp, “We need to give Groce a year or two to let him develop his guys! They’ll transfer if Groce is fired!”
If the reasoning behind retaining Groce for 2017 is folks need to see how he does with his recruits, what if his recruits don’t pan out immediately? If Whitman gives him another season, what is he really giving him, and what message is he sending to the Illinois fanbase? It’s a dangerous rope to tight walk on if you’re Josh Whitman, who will never come out and say he’s keeping Groce because of his recruiting class. But secretly, if Groce stays, I can guarantee you that’s the reason why, because quite frankly there are few other reasons for retention. He’s proven to be a subpar X’s and O’s coach. His in-game adjustments almost never work out. I can’t even keep track of the number of times I’ve seen him call a timeout when the game was getting away from Illinois and the team actually performed worse after the timeout.
There’s a specific play that’s burned into my memory from last season that is really indicative of the whole Groce era for me. It was against Wisconsin at home, and the Illini were down by ten points as the game was starting to slip away from them. Groce called a full timeout to try and stop the Badgers’ run. After a two minute break to draw up a set play, the Illini came out of the huddle and inbounded the ball. What happens next may or may not surprise you.
Turnover. Out of a timeout. I couldn’t believe it. The camera had barely switched back to the action on the court and the play that Groce had just drawn up went to hell in two seconds. It was just another grumble to add to the list for most of the home crowd that night, but I sat amidst the boos and the head shakings in disbelief. What the hell happened there? And yes, it was just one play, it could’ve been a brain cramp, Khalid Lewis slipped, whatever. It was so indicative of what the Groce era has become in my eyes that I couldn’t let it go. Groce literally stopped the game to inform his players exactly what he wanted them to do. He reiterated this idea several times. He visually illustrated where everyone was supposed to be, and ten seconds later no one was in the right place.
It’s happened many other times in many other forms, too. It’s embarrassing. This is the University of Illinois. I never once saw that happen coming out of a timeout at a high school game. I’ve become painfully habituated to switching off ESPN halfway through the first half when Illinois is trailing the Maryland’s and Purdue’s of the world by a thousand points. And I’m not even asking Groce to beat ranked teams on the road, although by year five that’s a reasonable expectation. No, I’m just asking that the game be competitive enough for a room full of alumni to not switch the channel before the first under-eight timeout in shame. Remember that NIT game against Alabama a few years back? The Crimson Tide fired their head coach days before the game. There were reports that the Alabama staff had totally lost their team. They were coach-less at tip-off. One of the assistants stepped up to be the interim, but their players looked like they didn’t want to be there. And they blew Illinois out of the building. Another humiliating loss. Here’s a breakdown of Big Ten teams’ losses by 20 or more points since Groce was hired back in 2012:
Northwestern - 15
Penn State - 14
Illinois & Nebraska - 12
Minnesota - 8
Purdue, Iowa & Ohio State - 6
Indiana & Michigan - 3
Michigan State - 2
Wisconsin - 0
We deserve better than this, Illini fans. We’ve become so accustomed to these blowouts that it’s almost routine. At this point it’s just a shrug of the shoulders. That’s not right. Only Penn State and Northwestern have more losses by 20+ points than Illinois does if you exclude Rutgers, which wasn’t even a member of the Big Ten when Groce was hired. That’s depressing. In the past half decade only Penn State, Northwestern and Rutgers have been worse than Illinois in the Big Ten. That’s not Illinois basketball. That needs to change. And whether or not you think it’s the right move, when a call for change is made, it’s usually directed at the head coach. How do you erase a culture that’s been created of the Illini getting pummeled in Big Ten road games? You clean house and try to set a new standard.
To further depress you, let’s go back to 2013. Cody Zeller gets lost on a pick play and Tyley Griffey drops in a layup at the buzzer to knock off No. 1 Indiana. The crowd goes wild. This spurred the Illini on to a five-game win streak that undoubtedly changed the course of their season and sent them to the tournament. But what if that didn’t happen? What if Griffey doesn’t get open, and instead the game goes to overtime where Indiana takes control and wins by six? That would’ve put Illinois at 15-9 and 2-8 in the Big Ten. Next up is a road trip to No. 15 Minnesota, a game that the Illini won by three but very easily could’ve dropped. I think it’s pretty fair to say that the Indiana buzzer-beater helped carry over enough positive momentum to push Illinois to a victory in Minneapolis. Let’s say Illinois loses that game too. 15-10, 2-9 in the Big Ten, tied for eleventh place. The season would look like it’s down the drain at that point. And I don’t need to tell you what happens the next three years under Groce. All of these seasons saw Illinois finish with similar (poor) Big Ten records, except for Groce’s first campaign which was sparked by Griffey’s buzzer beater. There’s no question that Griffey’s play was amazing and a memory that Illini fans will cherish forever. But there’s also no question that that one singular moment turned the entire season around. And if it hadn’t happened, Groce’s tenure could very well looked like this:
Year 1: NIT appearance (6-12 B1G record)
Year 2: NIT appearance (7-11 B1G record)
Year 3: NIT appearance (9-9 B1G record)
Year 4: no postseason (5-13 B1G record)
I’m presuming a lot by changing the outcome of year one, but my point is that Groce’s Big Ten record once stood at 2-7 during his first year, which is widely considered his “best” year. That’s not very good. And it’s funny, because with a limited view of the facts there’s two very different ways you could look at Groce’s time here in Champaign. You could view it optimistically, like this:
Year 1: Almost made Sweet 16 despite terrible call against Miami
Year 2: Two inches away on an Abrams floater from advancing to BTT semifinals with a 20-win record, probable tourney berth
Year 3: Might’ve made the tournament if they’d won at Purdue in season finale, where they were up by 20 in the first half before collapsing
Year 4: Plagued with injuries, hardly even counts because of depleted roster, were fully healthy twice (8 point loss to No. 4 Iowa State, 5 point loss to No. 23 Notre Dame)
That’s a glass half full approach. Here’s the flip side:
Year 1: Griffey’s miracle buzzer beater turns season around for a month, but prior to that Illini were struggling and near bottom of the B1G. Almost collapsed against Colorado in first round of NCAA Tournament
Year 2: Another long Big Ten losing streak, season was saved enough to go to the NIT on Ekey’s miracle buzzer beater at Iowa
Year 3: Three-game losing streak to end the year including embarrassing losses to Michigan and Alabama, whispers of team quitting after poor finish in NIT
Year 4: Losses to North Florida and Chattanooga set the tone for a terrible year, could only scrape out wins against teams like Rutgers and Chicago State
Those are two very different realities. What if John Groce isn’t a very good coach and he got away with it during year one with another coach’s roster and some late-game heroics from Tyler Griffey? Or, what if John Groce has been one of the unluckiest coaches in the country with injuries and somehow, despite all these issues, has still made the postseason in three of his first four years?
There’s two sides to every coin, but at a certain point it doesn’t matter. And that’s what I’m trying to hammer home here. At a certain point, even if you’re Josh Whitman, who has only been on campus for one of Groce’s five seasons, you need to admit a simple fact: it’s all about the wins. John Groce could be the best motivator, the best recruiter and the nicest guy Whitman has ever met, and it still wouldn’t matter if he only won 15-17 games a year.
I’d like to include a personal anecdote in this article as well, because I want to reaffirm that John Groce is a terrific guy and I’m not trying to attack him personally.
Three years ago, I was waiting in line at Memorial Stadium during halftime of an Illinois for a hot dog when I noticed Groce walking around the concourse. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a picture with me, but that question seemed dumb a few minutes later. Not only was he thrilled to take the picture, but he waited until I got my food and offered to “talk hoops” with me prior to the third quarter beginning. It was awesome. I’ll never forget that he took time out of his busy day to talk college basketball with me.
But, in a way this essentially furthers my point. The concept that because Groce is charismatic and recruits like his charm he should remain at Illinois until he turns into a mean old grouch is ludicrous. Everyone in Champaign wanted Tim Beckman gone after just a few years. Why? Some might argue it’s because he never won Big Ten games. But that’s not the reason. The reason was because he was a bumbling goofball. He couldn’t speak to the media. He constantly stumbled over his words. He was an idiot on the sidelines during games. And of course, the scandal that eventually sank him was awful. But let’s compare Beckman's Big Ten record to that of John Groce’s through their four seasons:
Four years of Beckman: 7 Big Ten wins
Four years of Groce: 26 Big Ten wins
Obviously there’s going to be a lot more victories in basketball, because basketball plays twice as many conference games as football teams do (nine conference football games, 18 conference basketball games). So let’s slice Groce’s number in half to even the playing field. Now look at it.
Four years of Beckman: 7 Big Ten wins, about 2 wins per season
Four years of Groce: 13 Big Ten wins, about 3 wins per season
Strictly from an X’s and O’s and “wins produced” perspective, John Groce is Tim Beckman with personality. There. I said it. And at a certain point, the charm and grace with which Groce presents himself gets tiring, because the team isn’t winning consistently enough. I’m tired of responding to the question, “Is there an Illini game on?” with “Yeah but I don’t wanna watch, it’s already getting ugly already.” This university, with its tremendous and rich basketball history, deserves so much more. We’ve seen how special a really great Illini team can be. And how much support the fanbase provides. But this program is trending in the wrong direction. Something needs to change. I have some ideal replacement candidates in mind (which I’ll write about in the weeks to come), but Groce’s honeymoon in Champaign is over. In fact, it's about time Whitman filed the divorce papers. In college basketball, it’s all about wins, and Groce has run out of time to produce them.