Fair Shake


Robert
Feb 11, 2017
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23 Comments

So much defending. So much getting behind my keyboard and doing my best William Wallace... "hold... Hold... HOLD". "Let him rebuild the roster - Weber left nothing", I said. "There are so many injuries, we can't really evaluate this product", I screamed. After the fall from grace under Bruce Weber, I wanted to give John Groce the fairest of fair shakes. So I did. And we're somehow worse.

That 2013/14 team where I just shrugged my shoulders and said "we had three returning players + two transfers + freshmen so of course it will be a struggle"? It feels like that team would destroy this team. I said "hold hold hold" until Groce had an experienced team of his own players, and the payoff was non-existent.

I was totally and completely serious before the season about this team having the experience and talent to win 23 games. I absolutely did run through the Big Ten schedule and find 12 wins. Five seniors, a legit go-to scorer, talented, top-50 freshmen like Leron and JCL becoming sophomores - that's a recipe for 20+ wins just based on the raw material.

And we're 14-12 (4-9).

Not just that, but we're... boring? Yes, we did have that big run to cut it to five (at home against 13-12 Penn State, I should mention), so the crowd did have something to cheer about in the second half (even though I saw at least 100 people leave with 10 minutes remaining), but in the first half, this place was dead. Nothing to get exicted about, no big runs, no defensive stops - just a game of basketball between two middling teams going nowhere.

Actually, I shouldn't say that. Penn State - they don't have any seniors - Penn State has a chance to be good next year. Those freshmen are really good. Dare I say it? Penn State is a team on the rise. And Illinois - The University Of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team - is still in decline. Going on 11 years now.

Remember the emotions you went through when we lost to Penn State at home in 2006? Remember the disbelief? We had lost, what, 3 home games in five years at that point? I remember sitting in this certain chair at my old house just absolutely stunned that we lost at home to Penn State.

Now? It's not in any way surprising. Well, I guess it is to me. I still don't value the "coaching" side of things enough and so I sit in disbelief that what I observe to be talented players not producing. I feel the same way about Ohio State this year. That's a very talented roster - why can't they win?

Larue had another great comment last week under my "Creativity" post:

I'll go back to Self's assertion that you score 35% of your points from what you draw up, and 65% from talented guys making plays. None of that to excuse the coaching, which impacts every area in multiple ways, but if you want creativity on the court I think you mostly have to find it and recruit it.

That's what blows my mind. That's why I wanted to give John Groce a fair shake. I didn't think there was much left on the roster when Groce took over (besides the seniors), so I wanted to give him time to find his guys. Going into this season, I did that little exercise where I looked at the composite ranking for every Big Ten player and found that Illinois ranked #3 in the conference when it comes to "talent" (on paper at least). Yes, recruiting evaluations can be wrong, but when you run those numbers for every school, I'd say 22 of the top-25 teams in "on-paper talent" are headed to the tournament. We're not.

Which means I've reached the end of the fair shake. Every time I screamed "hold, hold" it was pointing towards this season, and then this season arrived and everything fell our way. The Big Ten is bad (did you see the preliminary Sweet 16 today with zero Big Ten teams?), and it was right there to be taken advantage of, and we had the experienced roster to do it, and we fell flat on our faces.

My emotion right now is very similar to the Northwestern football game in 2015 (you know, "not ideal" day). I was so upset because I felt like our administration had failed our players. There they were, playing their hearts out, trying to get in a bowl, and we're kicking coaching decisions down the road, eventually promoting the son of the head coach to offensive coordinator (and giving him a 400% raise). The adults failed the kids.

And here, with this team, I see it again. It's so not fair that Malcolm Hill will play his entire Illini career without getting to the NCAA Tournament one time. I hate that Tracy fought back through two full years of injury rehab just for a season like this. I'll go to my grave believing the pieces were here for this team to put together a run in this Big Ten. And this head coach couldn't make it happen.

Honestly, when the season is over and he loses his job, there's no way that John Groce can say that he didn't receive a fair shake. Even after missing the tournament for three straight years - absolutely unheard of in Champaign - he was given one more year to turn it around. And he had a roster full of talent and experience to do it. And, barring an Big Ten Tournament run, we're now officially eliminated on February 11th.

You know that I listen to classical music when typing out postgame posts from the pressbox or press row, right? Well, the music in my ears right now is so incredibly fitting. It's Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony ("Pathetique"). His last, which premiered nine days before his death. The final movement is very dark. Some have theorized that he sensed his impending death and wrote it as some type of requiem. It more or less gets softer and softer until it fades away on a dark B-minor chord. The next thing you know, after three brilliant, exciting movements, it ends in a very dark tone, simply fading away.

Sound familiar?

Comments

iluvrt on February 11 @ 06:09 PM CST

A day of infamy. Three in a row lost to PSU. Still no 2 wins in a row in BIG in 2 years. Behind by almost 20 at home. Why would anyone follow this torturous tide of befuddled coachdom?

NC_OrangeKrush on February 11 @ 06:12 PM CST

So many will say I told you so... But it was fair to give a fair shake....

And now we will move on. I would love a B10 tourney run for Malcolm, but would still have to move on regardless...

Ignore the naysayers Robert... We are a bad team, but better days ahead

Groundhogday on February 11 @ 06:12 PM CST

Amen. But let me put a slightly different spin on things: our actual talent is less than the sum of recruiting rankings. Black and JCL were top 40 recruits, but neither will get a sniff of all-conference recognition even in a down year for the conference. Abrams clearly isn't 100%. So we get major minutes from guys who weren't that highly ranked: Morgan, Lucas, Nichols. Groce was a able to land a few highly ranked guys, but overall we don't have great talent.

That said, we have enough talent to be competitive and enough experience to win. If this team played consistently hard, smart and efficiently we'd be easily in the dance. We don't and we won't. That is all on the coaching (as is the mediocre recruiting).

Groundhogday on February 11 @ 07:25 PM CST

So, can we now speculate about the next hire? We need something to distract us from the sad state of this program.

Whitman has made two hires at Illinois, and the only things in common with both hires are that (a) he made decisive moves; and (b) both were somewhat outside the box. No one expected an NFL hire at Illinois, and certainly didn't think Lovie Smith would be interested. And almost everyone thought Whitman would hire a proven head coach to take Illinois to the next level in volleyball.

Keatts? Archie Miller? Chris Holtmann? Those are the obvious mid-major candidates. Cuonzo Martin and Tony Bennett are two established coaches with midwestern ties who might (or might not) see Illinois as a step up in in program potential. And anyone thinking of a Lovie analogy brings up Hoiberg.

Don't be surprised if Whitman pulls a surprise and hires someone we didn't even consider.

ATOillini on February 11 @ 08:38 PM CST

Good post. What was once shocking is now commonplace. Time for yet another reset.

Bear8287 on February 11 @ 08:54 PM CST

That 2013/14 team where I just shrugged my shoulders and said "we had three returning players + two transfers + freshmen so of course it will be a struggle"? It feels like that team would destroy this team

Yeah. It kind of does, doesn't it?

I was totally and completely serious before the season about this team having the experience and talent to win 23 games. I absolutely did run through the Big Ten schedule and find 12 wins. Five seniors, a legit go-to scorer, talented, top-50 freshmen like Leron and JCL becoming sophomores - that's a recipe for 20+ wins just based on the raw material.

Yes, it is. Your analysis last year was also correct when you expected the Illini to go 3-5 in your Eight Games Where We'll Learn Something piece. I posted this 11 B1G Wins and How the Illini Could Still Get Them in the IlliniBoard Forum back on January 8th. John Groce's teams have woefully under performed. The B1G has probably proven to be even weaker than you thought when you originally did your analysis too.

Penn State - they don't have any seniors - Penn State has a chance to be good next year.

So, what kind of punch to the gut is that? Hey, we saw a young Maryland team absolutely shred this Illini team at the beginning of the B1G. Doesn't that say something not so good about this Illini coaching staff? The Illini should've beaten Penn State in Happy Valley and certainly had no business losing to them at home... down 19 at home and 21 on the road, but put on just enough flourishes to show that the Illini did have the talent to beat the Nittany Lions.

Remember the emotions you went through when we lost to Penn State at home in 2006? Remember the disbelief? We had lost, what, 3 home games in five years at that point? I remember sitting in this certain chair at my old house just absolutely stunned that we lost at home to Penn State.

... and now? Not even surprising. (Although I'll have to admit that before the last two games, if forced to, I would've predicted a loss at Northwestern and a win at home against PSU.) So the Illini won't lose twice in one season to Northwestern but have already lost twice to PSU. Wow, just writing that sentence seems surreal. It seems like losing twice to this PSU team should be an automatic tourney disqualifier all on it's own, doesn't it?

I still don't value the "coaching" side of things enough and so I sit in disbelief that what I observe to be talented players not producing.

Yeah, well I'm still holding out hope that you're going to come around, otherwise you're just going to sound like OrangeJulius.

I was so upset because I felt like our administration had failed our players. There they were, playing their hearts out, trying to get in a bowl, and we're kicking coaching decisions down the road, eventually promoting the son of the head coach to offensive coordinator (and giving him a 400% raise). The adults failed the kids.

YES! That in a nutshell is why this coaching staff has got to go. Who believes that these kids don't want to win? It's got to be killing Malcolm that any slim chance that the Illini might have had to make the tourney during his collegiate career at Illinois probably just walked out the door this afternoon.

Even after missing the tournament for three straight years - absolutely unheard of in Champaign.

Now, heard of in Champaign!

I suspect that like many other fans, the next thing that I'm looking forward to hearing out of Champaign is that Josh Whitman has hired a coach who can take the program back to it's historical standing of being top 20, because it sure ain't there now...

HiggsBoson on February 11 @ 08:55 PM CST

Robert, sorry, but you've been rationalizing Groce's poor performance all along. The only season he was even half way decent at Illinois was with Weber's guys. He just gets progressively worse with his own guys.

Truth of the matter is, Groce should never have been hired. His resume was very thin compared to every other Illinois basketball coach of my lifetime. He really only had one good season at Ohio, and, of course, has been poor in conference for his entire career as a head coach. He was hired because Mid Major Mike Thomas couldn't hire any good coaches and reverted back to his usual practice of hiring a MAC guy from Ohio. He's a one trick pony, and that's the trick.

I live too far away to know personally, but have heard stories from folks who've attended practice that there's a lot of Groce talking (and over complicating everything) and not much actual coaching going on, while staff and players tune him out. Which would explain a lot, come to think of it.

I feel sorry for the players who've had to put up with this hot mess, but Groce needs to go ASAP.

Whitman needs to make a hire with a Lovie like splash soon, or risk the program fading into dust.

Groundhogday on February 11 @ 09:13 PM CST

Robert, sorry, but you've been rationalizing Groce's poor performance all along. The only season he was even half way decent at Illinois was with Weber's guys. He just gets progressively worse with his own guys.

And to put Groce's first season into perspective, Weber had three seasons better AFTER losing all of the Self recruits.

I live too far away to know personally, but have heard stories from folks who've attended practice that there's a lot of Groce talking (and over complicating everything) and not much actual coaching going on, while staff and players tune him out.

No way to know for sure what was wrong in practice given how well Groce keeps a lid on things, but clearly Groce and his staff haven't been effective teachers.

Groundhogday on February 11 @ 10:46 PM CST

“The way I’ve grown up, everyone had their roles and knew their roles and everyone did their job,” Thomas said. “Each piece has to fit perfectly in its place. At times when I watch them play, everyone is trying to do everyone else’s job. - Deon Thomas

http://www.saukvalley.com/2017/02/10/illinois-still-searching-for-identity-late-into-season/at07mwv/

Robert on February 12 @ 09:44 AM CST

Great quote from Deon. Every season seems to have an overall theme (2011/12: "Collapse under pressure"; 2008/09: "Team follows Chester Frazier's lead"), and this season, everyone I talk to has the same general reaction: why the hell can't they put these pieces together?

Bear8287 on February 12 @ 10:53 AM CST

Some great coaches can take the players that they have and put the pieces together in such a way that they'll always be competitive. Other good coaches can win with the right combination of pieces (their right combination) that they know how to fit together to be competitive.

Think of it as like being a great chef. You can throw a great chef into almost any kitchen with a decent set of ingredients and they'll whip up a fantastic meal. Other chefs will do really well with a set recipe and will make a really good meal if they have the right ingredients available for that recipe. Other cooks will burn the dinner no matter how good the ingredients or kitchen.

John Groce has demonstrated that he certainly doesn't appear to be in that top echelon which immediately puts him at a disadvantage in a conference like the B1G. He might be able to have some level of success with the "right" ingredients, but he hasn't been able to apparently acquire those in almost 5 seasons at Illinois either. What casts even more doubt on his probability for success is that often at times it's unclear what exactly his recipe (or system) even is with the players on the floor often looking confused and not being able to play a complete 40 minutes. Take Deon's quote about players knowing their roles... (you know, "connectedness" and "synchronicity".)

Coaches talk about being able to handle adversity. This is where leadership really matters. Contrary to being "unevaluateable", last season was a great experiment to see just exactly how this coaching staff would handle adversity. It's easy to look good when everything is going your way, but you'll likely learn a lot more about the character of a coaching staff and team by how they react when everything isn't going their way.

Robert, I keep pointing to your Eight Games Where We'll Learn Something article from last season, because it was pretty much spot on. Yes, 3-5 was a reasonable expectation and going 0-8 was not. We pretty much learned all that we needed to know; ergo this season is unfortunately not a surprise.

Yes, John Groce has been given a "Fair Shake". It's now time to wish him the best in his future endeavors and for the Illini basketball program to move on and move forward.

Groundhogday on February 12 @ 06:20 PM CST

So we have a theme song for this season!

Apocalyptica: Broken Pieces

McAdoo on February 12 @ 10:26 AM CST

I'm going to throw names for a new coach out there just because it feels like the only productive thing I can do at this point...

Gregg Marshall - Wichita State - This would be an excellent hire. I think deep down Marshall wants a chance at a big-time gig at some point, although Wichita State treats him very well. I think Illinois could have gotten him two or three years ago, but not now. The Illini's reputation has been hurt that much just over the last couple years.

Brad Underwood - Oklahoma State - He's the guy Illinois should call after Marshall likely says no. He did a great job at Stephen F. Austin and he has Illinois connections thanks to being an assistant at Western Illinois for a decade.

Tim Jankovich - SMU - Jankovich coached under Bill Self, which will have some allure. Never could get into the NCAA Tournament as head coach at Illinois State, but he's done a good job so far at SMU after taking over for Larry Brown. I don't think he'll be a target unless a couple guys say no.

Cuonzo Martin - California - Martin did a nice job at Missouri State and parlayed a 26-9 season into the gig at Tennessee. Martin then was on the hot seat and (Rightly) bailed for Cal even after a Sweet 16 season. Made the NCAA Tournament last year at Cal but lost in the first round. It appears that Cal will make the Big Dance again this season. The biggest problem with this candidacy is his connection to the Keady-Weber coaching tree. A huge chunk of the fan-base isn't clamoring for a guy with such connections.

Kevin Keatts - UNC-Wilmington - Has connections with the Pitino coaching tree and he's done nicely at UNC Dub. Was an assistant at Western Michigan for two years so he has some Midwest connections along with being on Pitino's staff at Louisville for 4 years.

Mick Cronin - Cincinnati - Was given a lot of rope at the start of his Cincinnati career (Four years without a 20-win season and no NCAA Tournament appearances) but finally turned it around and has done well in the six years since (20+ wins and a Big Dance trip every season). However, the fan base reaction again could be a factor against Cronin since this would be ANOTHER coaching hire from the state of Ohio.

Monty Williams - San Antonio Spurs VP of Basketball Operations - I frankly don't see how he's a realistic candidate, but his name has been put out there as a potential "Lovie"-like move (Along with the obvious Hoiberg rumors) from Josh Whitman.

Archie Miller - Dayton - Miller's name is out there somehow, but this won't happen. Miller won't take a job that one of his coaching buddies just got fired from.

Finally, two SUPER-SLEEPERS...

Matt Lottich - Valparaiso - Lottich has only been a head coach for one year but he has the Crusaders at 21-5. Assisted under Bryce Drew from 2013-16. Played college ball at Stanford under Mike Montgomery.

King Rice - Monmouth - The Hawks beat five power-conference teams in 2015-16 but lost in their conference tournament championship to miss out on the NCAA Tournament. Monmouth doesn't have the same power-conference wins this year (Although they did beat Memphis at Memphis) but they are still 21-5 and currently in control of the MACC standings. Here's why I like Rice as a super-sleeper: He played at North Carolina under Dean Smith, assisted for six years at Illinois State and has completely turned around what had become a moribund Monmouth program during the last four years of Dave Calloway's coaching tenure.

Bear8287 on February 12 @ 10:56 AM CST

Hey, this is a really nice list. Would you mind posting it here? Thanks.

LongLiveTheChief98 on February 13 @ 10:35 AM CST

Saw a mention of this possible candidate elsewhere online, as it intrigues me and seems to fit Whitman's outside-the-box hiring mold: Jay Bilas.

Thoughts?

AHSIllini32 on February 13 @ 08:12 PM CST

The paysite you stole this from appreciates it...

HiggsBoson on February 13 @ 08:38 PM CST

The idea that you can "steal" an idea from a pay site is ridiculous.

LongLiveTheChief98 on February 14 @ 08:08 AM CST

Umm, hey a**hole, I didn't quote or copy any material from any other site, merely mentioned that he was discussed as a candidate....so take your self-righteous hidden-behind-a-keyboard attitude elsewhere.

LongLiveTheChief98 on February 14 @ 08:14 AM CST

Aaaand...I guess mentioning any other candidate that was also mentioned there is also off-limits to discuss here?

You may want to work on your logic skills.

Bear8287 on February 14 @ 08:05 PM CST

Wow. Just when I was wondering what ever happened to AHS, who should show up? (I thought that maybe you were just posting as "OrangeJulius" :-D )

LongLiveTheChief98 on February 14 @ 08:13 AM CST

HailToTheOrange on February 13 @ 02:32 PM CST

I starting having serious Groce doubts at the end of his second season, when our offense consistently devolved into dribbling to nowhere, passing around the perimeter and taking a contested 3 with 2 on the shot clock (resulting in oh so many 5-22 3pt stat lines).

It sucks that (as one commentor put it) our program went from driving on the highway w/ Self/Kruger to exiting it for back country roads after two years with Webber to the car being driven into a deep dark ditch w/ Groce.

But I think we're past time to put this baby to bed. Any objective Illini fan knew this season was over weeks ago and any true fan would opt for us missing a tournament we would have lost early in regardless in order to insure that an absolutely necessary coaching change is locked in (even if it meant our seniors never got to dance).

So I agree with the focus of some of the other comments in this post. Robert et. all, let's dedicate your awesome analytical and writing abilities to the future rather than lamenting the past or bellyaching over the present. It's just not that productive and is more depressing than cathartic at this point.

I for one would love a series of articles on coaching prospects. Maybe one dedicated sussing out who the dream scenario coaches would be...the Lovie-type hires that we think would be out of the realm of possibility either b/c of $$, circumstance, interest. It might be fantasy land but it would be more fun and maybe it would even drum up some ideas that are more possible than we know. Then, an article on more realistic options...and why. I just don't have bandwidth to keep tabs on the up & commers/mid-majors anymore...so I for one would find it helpful/interesting. And I'd love to see the IlliniBoard community chip in its collective wisdom on this series too.

Peace.

Bear8287 on February 13 @ 02:49 PM CST

Absolutely. Come join us in the discussion here:

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