What was looking to be one of the most promising seasons of Illinois basketball in recent years, took a drastic turn after the beginning of Big Ten play. It left a lot of people, myself included, asking how a team full of such talent, experience, and apparent skill, could turn this season into one that has us shaking our heads.
The Illini started off the season at a promising 5-0, though not really playing much of anyone that you’d expect them to drop to at home. The biggest highlight of these games were our first in-game looks at the new and refurbished Illinois State Farm Center (*cough* Assembly Hall *cough*) Going into the season, with a arguably weak Big Ten to face, it looked like Illinois could perform, and we could see one of the first (wholly solid) Illinois season performances in a long while.
However…. That wasn’t to be the case. The stadium definitely has looked great, especially when compared to an Illinois team that consistently has barely not had enough in the tank to finish tight games. Now, let’s flip that side of the sentence. If we were looking at an Illinois team that barely HAD enough in the tank to finish the tight games, and had pulled out tight victories against Indiana, Penn State, Maryland, Minnesota, and… AGAIN and most recently… Penn State… We’d be looking at an entirely different Illinois team. Flip some of those close wins, and this season’s outlook is different. The Illinois team would have to win the Big Ten tournament now to hope for a spot inside of the Big Dance.
There were a few TV analysts giving Illinois a spot in the bubble before their last loss at home to Penn State, a frustrating game to watch for most Illinois fans, but with the loss (after pulling back from a 14-point deficit, and then blowing the comeback entirely) the Illinois team is solidly out of contention for a spot in the NCAA tournament. NIT, maybe? Probably. But that doesn’t appeal to most Illinois fans (excluding, admittedly, myself, more on that later.) and they were definitely looking for a spot in the NCAA tournament, which they’ve not landed a spot in in 4 years.
I personally wouldn’t mind the NIT, even though I’d much more prefer the NCAA tournament. This tournament will allow the team to get more experience for younger players, and hope to build towards the next season.
This is John Groce’s fifth year in charge of the Fighting Illini, and the lack of performance and willingness to finish out a game, along with some arguably questionable decision making from the coaching staff, has fans calling out for Groce’s head coaching position. Most websites are already offering their various takes on 5 Replacements for Groce.
It should be noted that, if Groce is fired, the Illinois recruiting class for the next year (which is currently seated well, in the top 10 nationally according to most rankings) is in jeopardy. Groce has been a good recruiter over the years, bringing in blooming talents like Te’Jon Lucas, Kipper Nichols, along with recruits who are now older. Add those current Freshmen, and older guys like Leron Black, with next year’s recruiting class, and the team could be in a solid place next year. Then again, we said that this year, with the returning talent we’ve had.
As an Illinois Athletic Director, do you take the chances of firing Groce and losing some of your recruits, or do you hold onto Groce and hope that there’s a change? That will be the question looming over the heads of not only Groce and his staff, but also of Illinois fans everywhere. The biggest question for the 14-12 (BIG 4-9), possibly NIT bound, Illinois team will be the recruitment status’ of Jeremiah Tilmon, Javon Pickett, Damonte Williams, Trent Frazier, and others. Will they hold their hard recruitments? Tilmon and Frazier have already signed Letter of Intents, which is solid for Illinois fans, but they’re right to be worried about the future.
This is a large crossroads for Illinois basketball, and with all good basketball programs, which side of this crossroads they come out on, will decide the future of the program. With the football team making huge gains, is it time for the Basketball team to follow suit?
Are you team #FireGroce , or team #SaveGroce ? What recruits stay or go if you fire him? Who replaces him?!
Comment below Illini and Big Ten fans, or on Facebook, and let me know what you think.