Tate: What's gone wrong in Groce era? Far too much
Disappointing! An abject failure!
Based on the record — two NCAA tournament victories in 11 seasons — that’s the status of Illini men’s basketball.
And John Groce must accept responsibility for the last five.
He arrived directly after a Sweet 16 run at Ohio, his two tourney triumphs in 2012 doubling his number at Illinois. For his critics, a 34-30 audit in the Mid-American Conference is pinpointed as more revealing.
He is now the target of fans who expect — no, demand — a great deal more. If a coach doesn’t win games at Illinois, his unfavorable numbers metastasize.
A 37-53 Big Ten record, coupled with four straight non-NCAA seasons, has put Groce’s future in jeopardy. An anxious Illini Nation awaits the word.
Nice guy finishes last
It isn’t that Groce and his staff didn’t go about it the right way. But “squeaky clean” doesn’t always pay off in a business made wobbly by underpinnings of corruption.
At the very least, the game carries unethical overtones by soiling institutions of learning with one-and-done migrants who only want to spend the winter and leave.
Success while exceeding the sport’s rules has been reported here before.
More than half the championships since 1960 were won by coaches who did so at some point, or had others do it for them ... and that’s just the ones who got caught.
Groce never palled around with or moneyed insiders who only needed a wink or a nod ... the descendants of those who repeatedly got Illinois sideways with NCAA investigators in a pockmarked past.
That’s to his credit. He reeked with ethics and energy, positivity and dedication. He’s a good guy, and he deserved to win. But too many painstaking recruiting efforts backfired with players who gave indications that they were interested and who, on two critical occasions, changed their minds in the 11th hour.
Groce made last-ditch adjustments to attract transfers, not exactly a long-range solution. He was further derailed by injuries and external problems. The retention of Kendrick Nunn alone might have allowed the team to turn the corner this season.
On the sidelines
Another voiced concern is Groce’s coaching style, which often involves a swinging door of subs. He is overly animated and so engaged — calling out plays — that some former Illini stars believe he would be hard to play for. The free-wheeling styles of Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Maryland are more player-friendly.
Josh Whitman’s decision on Groce is a complicated one. When an athletic director becomes embroiled in a multi-million dollar quandary, the president and the Board of Trustees are automatically involved. We’ve seen their influence in previous cases.
So Whitman must work in consultation with superiors, keeping an eye on the costs and the availability of an acceptable successor, and what his decision means to fans, faculty and those in his department.
One big question mark
For most failing teams, recruiting falters. Blue-chippers usually join winners. That’s the wild card here. Groce has lined up his best incoming class.
Here again, a complex problem emerges. If Groce is released, some signed stars may seek releases, putting Illinois further behind the 8-ball.
And even if all the freshmen arrive, they’ll be entering a Big Ten Conference loaded with second-year standouts ... particularly at Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa. Surprising Minnesota and Northwestern should be even better next year and, barring NBA departures, Purdue and Indiana will be formidable. A down league in 2017 could be up in 2018.
Here’s the bad news: When you reach this level of ineptitude, when you lose 10 games by nine points or more (in some cases, much more), it usually takes time to regain consistency. Regardless who the coach is, patience will be needed.
But the good news is that, if kept intact and given time, the incoming class could form the nucleus to make Illinois a contender down the road.
In the final analysis, the Groce decision can’t be made with the cheers of 15,544 resounding after the win over MSU, nor in the quiet surroundings of Washington, D.C., on Thursday. The weight of five seasons must be placed on the scales. Whitman is doing exactly that.
One additional thought: Groce arrived at the same time as Matt Bollant, raising the question — since Bollant’s failures have been even greater — how Whitman could fire Groce and retain Bollant. Folks are asking: Is it simply because poorly-attended women’s basketball doesn’t carry enough weight?
Loren Tate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.