Josh Whitman didn't waste any time making an impact on his first day on the job. While most of the buzz surrounds his decision to fire Bill Cubit, and allegedly bring former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith into the fold, Whitman also announced that John Groce would be retained next season as the men's basketball coach at Illinois.
Whitman told the News-Gazette's Loren Tate and Michael Kiser yesterday that Groce would be given another year:
"I think it's important today that folks understand that John Groce is going to continue to be our basketball coach," Whitman told Loren Tate and Michael Kiser. "He's a first-class individual and an excellent leader. He's a student of basketball and leadership and I feel really comfortable with the leadership he's given our guys."
The Illini finished off the 2015-16 regular season with an 86-79 loss in double overtime to Penn State, to finish with an underwhelming 13-18, 5-13 Big Ten record. Though Illinois still has at least one more game in the Big Ten Tournament, 13 wins in a season would be its lowest season total since 1992. The season was defined by early-season injuries to Tracy Abrams, who missed the entire year, in addition to Mike Thorne, Leron Black (injured, then suspended for an incident where he threatened a bouncer at a bar with a knife), Michael Finke, and Jaylon Tate all missed time with various ailments. Groce supporters cite the injuries and claim 2016 was a lost cause, simply because the lack of available players at key positions. His detractors will point out that the Illini still had two of the top scorers in the Big Ten in Malcolm Hill (who set a career-high with 39 points Sunday) and Kendrick Nunn, in addition to productive freshmen Jalen Coleman-Lands and Finke, and a late season resurgence by Maverick Morgan. Despite those options, the Illini's offense too often boiled down to standing around and watching Nunn and Hill take contested shots, and Illinois was one of the worst teams in the conference defensively.
Next year should have higher expectations, and bringing Groce back gives him a chance to prove himself and get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. Getting Da'Monte Williams, a four-star point guard for 2017, certainly helps Groce's case, but ultimately his fate will be decided by the improvement of the product on the court next season.