Feb 05, 2017

The Illini lost again today. Minnesota controlled the second half en route to a workmanlike 68-59 win that dropped us to 13-11 overall and 3-8 in Big Ten play. Einstein is famously noted for defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The attribution of the quote is likely apocryphal and it's a terribly overused cliche, but damn if it isn't apt to describe the offensive machinations of this team. Our guards shot a combined 6 of 34 from the field and that about covers today's events. I could analyze more actual basketball stuff, but I'm not seeing much point in that exercise. I could just switch around some names and quotes from any of the January losses and the write-up would be about the same. Instead let's look at the big picture.

Selection Sunday is five weeks away. Of course, Illini fans won't have much cause to tune in to the broadcast, yet that day remains permanently etched on my mental calendar. At this point, though, I'm not exactly sure why.

My Illini brain can't do apathy, and I'm well past anger so I'm left with a sort of bewilderment. I'm bewildered that after a ten year (1996-2006) stretch as arguably one of the top 10 programs in the country, two consecutive coaches conspired over the next decade to steer the program into college basketball abyss. One drove it there and his successor has since lost the keys.

Come March 12 when our name is once again not in the field of 68, it will be the seventh such time out of the last ten tournaments. Three NCAA tournaments in the last decade. Incomprehensible.

We haven't finished above .500 in the conference or played on the weekend in the Big Ten Tournament since 2010. Outside the conference, mid-major schools throughout the Midwest are running circles around our program right now. Schools such as Creighton, Butler, Wichita State, Dayton, Xavier, Northern Iowa all have more NCAA Tourney appearances than us over the past decade. Even Northwestern and Illinois State have jumped ahead of us in the college hoops pecking order this season.

Home attendance continues to dwindle, and the crowd that does show up to the State Farm Center these days has almost an obligatory feel to it. The building hasn't really rocked in over a decade. Even today - the first sellout of the newly renovated State Farm Center. 15K and change. Looked nice and full and orange at tip-off, and you got the sense that it kind of wanted to rock, but its collective heart was never really into it.

Let's face it - we are officially irrelevant. An afterthought. The college basketball equivalent of the Jacksonville Jaguars. We have been for a while, really, but it takes a little time for the mind to process and admit such a sea change.

John Groce said after the game that it's OK to beat him up about the team's struggles, but urged fans not to take it out on the kids because it wears so heavily on them. He's quite right about that. After Malcolm Hill missed a free throw late in the second half, I could almost hear his shoulders slump from press row. The weight he carries is palpable, and it's just criminal that he'll finish his career without playing in a single NCAA Tournament game.

So with his permission granted, I am going to beat up on Coach Groce a bit. In a December Back and Forth with Robert, I offered up a few things I needed to see for me to feel comfortable again with the program direction under the current leadership:

  • Avoid a January death spiral (3-7 in January and 0-1 in February. The January spiral has now infected February.)
  • Win on the road somewhere besides Rutgers, Northwestern, Penn State, or Nebraska (Forget somewhere else. We'll be lucky to get a road W against even one of those three.)
  • Finally beat Wisconsin. (Nope)

Suffice it to say I remain extremely uncomfortable. Still, this was a really hard post for me to write because I like and respect John Groce. I have steadfastly rooted and hoped for him to get the program back on track, but as we near the end of year five in his tenure, we remain hopelessly derailed. He will always be a part of the Illini family, and just like anyone it pains me to see family struggle - especially a good dude like Groce. But that said I think it's kind of over.

Because irrelevance sucks.


NC_OrangeKrush on February 05 @ 03:48 AM CST

Last paragraph and sentence I agree with, I like the man, and believe he may be successful later, at least administratively if not the coaching. But change is required.

Being mad at Lou Henson for not getting us to elite 8s and final fours more often back in the day seems pretty petty in this new world. Sad a generation doesn't even know what it looks like.

It will turn around quick with the right hire, I have faith in JW to do it right.. #WeWillWin

mrmill on February 05 @ 05:07 AM CST

I'm tired of the sentiment that John is a good guy. He probably is, but that has become irrelevant too. In six months, he'll occupy the same place Mark Treastman, Vinny Del Negro, Tim Beckman, and Mike Thomas (and dozens of others) do in my mind. I have no idea where they are, but they failed miserably in the job they had.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 05:34 AM CST

Ditto. But I think is is also part of the logic behind the continued suggestion that Weber drove the program into the ditch and Groce couldn't get us out. No, Weber took us from elite status to every-other-year in the NCAA tournament (with alternate years mostly on the bubble). In a good year at KSU, Weber has the No. 28 team per Kenpom. That is pretty much where he had Illinois - good years solid tourney teams, bad years bubble, one train wreck when Maniscalco went down and we didn't have a backup PG.

Weber took us off the interstate, and onto the country road that he prefers to drive. Groce drove us into the ditch.

HiggsBoson on February 05 @ 10:20 AM CST

Telling us that John Groce is a good guy is like saying she doesn't sweat much for a fat girl. Probably true, but ignoring the negatives-- in Groce's case that he can't coach a lick.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 03:49 AM CST

The only way to stay positive in this situation is to focus on who will be our next bball coach and what talent he will inherit.

Coaches: Keatts is my favorite. Archie Miller is the obvious hire. I'd love to have Hoiberg or Marshall but don't think they'll come.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 04:00 AM CST

As for returning talent, Black and Nichols might be the two best returning pieces. Next coach probably needs to find a way to get them on the court together. Go small with Black and Nichols at the 5-4, or go big with Nichols at the 3.

We really need Finke to come out of the weight room next year ready to be a serviceable B1G 5. Right now he is too slow to defend most 4s and not strong enough to defend inside. Huge liability on D. Tilmon is likely to struggle as a FR so Finke has to hold the fort at least 20 mpg.

We need set plays to get JCL going with his shot. Too much dribbling for a guy not comfortable dribbling the ball. Could be a good role player in the right system.

PG? Lucas doesn't have good form on his shot. Do they fix that or live with it. Really hoping Frazier can be an impact FR, but more likely he'll need a year.

Walkon on February 05 @ 06:35 AM CST

We did run some nice things in the first half to get JCL some really good looks. Especially when Minny brought the post double. We should have been up 10 at the half.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 07:39 AM CST

We sometimes run offense. But not consistently. At this level, you have to play smart with every possession. Hill was really pressing in this game, trying to take things over offensively. But that isn't his game, doesn't have the athleticism to go one-on-one.

mrmill on February 05 @ 05:11 AM CST

JCL set a freshman record for shooting 3s and was a top 50 recruit. He's hardly beyond irreparable. There is plenty of talent next year, especially if we can keep some or all of our current recruits.

Way to early to write of TJL too. He's a freshman, fringe top125 PG. if JFG had brought in 2+ others previously, we may not be in this mess.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 05:29 AM CST

JCL's high school recruiting ranking is meaningless when we have two years of college performance to evaluate. I'm certainly not writing him off, simply pointing out how he could best be effective. JCL isn't a guy who can create his own shot, nor can he shoot over anyone. So you need to run screens to get him open. When open with his feet set, JCL is a terrific shooter.

Similarly, I haven't written off TJL. In fact, I've written many times on this forum that Groce needed to recruit someone like Lucas in year 1 his Illinois tenure might have played out differently. He is shooting well from the arc on limited shots. That said, you do have to wonder if the next staff will do something about that kick out.

But I don't see Lucas as more than a solid B1G PG (something we haven't had in years!), and Frazier has more offensive potential and explosiveness.

We have some talent returning, but not great talent. We have some talent coming in, but only one consensus top-100 player. (Yes, this is the time to use high school rankings because that is all we have to go on.) Tilmon is very raw and might need a year to adjust.

Plenty of talent? Based upon what evidence? We have one of the worst teams in the B1G and lose our two best players (Hill and Morgan). Other than the elite players, most freshmen need a year to adjust. Next year might well be a struggle, but perhaps by 2018-19 a new coach could get us back into the tournament with the addition of a couple key recruits.

HiggsBoson on February 05 @ 08:32 AM CST

There's certainly talent enough here for middle of the pack B1G. Enough to make me wonder how they would have done with some coaching.

mrmill on February 05 @ 09:35 AM CST

How many teams have significantly more talent 3 or 4? Not Iowa, MN, PSU, either NU or Rutgers. I'd say we are equal to osu and Mich. For years the B1G has been wide open after the top handful. If we had a decent coach, we'd be at least 3 games better and squarely on the bubble.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 09:50 AM CST

So with a good coach we are squarely on the bubble, we are losing our two best players (Hill and Morgan), and yet you think we are ahead of the pack in terms of talent? That is fanboy thinking. Or maybe you have different expectations? I'm asking whether we have the talent to reliably make the NCAA tournament. What is your standard?

HiggsBoson on February 05 @ 10:28 AM CST

There's enough talent on this roster to make the tournament with good coaching. It's very typical of the frustrated fan to dump on players and pretend that none of them have any talent or skills.

IMO, you could give John Groce the Jordan-Pippin Bulls in their prime and he'd coach them to a lower division B1G finish. It makes me sad tto see someone like Malcolm Hill, who is a good player and wonder how much better he would be had he not been subject to Groce for four years.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 11:01 AM CST

There is some talent, and more importantly experience. Enough to make the NCAA tournament. But we lose quite a bit in terms of both talent and experience.

Next year? We basically return two proven starters (Black and JCL) and no proven stars. We are hoping that Lucas becomes a solid B1G PG (not unreasonable), Nichols can give us quality starter-level minutes at the three, that either Tilmon is ready to start at center or Finke makes a quantum leap in interior rebounding/defense, and that Frazier can give us a good 25+ mpg at the 1-2 positions. That is a lot of hoping and wishing. Freshmen often disappoint, particularly freshmen bigs and recruits outside the RSCI top 100.

Now in a couple of years, I like the athleticism of the 2017 class - best we've seen in a while. Add a few elite scorers (particularly a creative wing) and we could really compete.

mrmill on February 06 @ 04:27 AM CST

Everybody loses talent. It is college basketball. Look at Maryland - lost everyone but one starter. Will most likely have a comparable or better seed to last year. It is amazing what can be done with good coaching and solid recruiting. No one is expecting titles any time soon - just competence and relevance.

I know it is my own fault for getting into a pissing match on a chat board. I don't even really understand your point. We are bad and we'll always be bad? Fine - but you should probably figure something more productive to do with your time. Let the rest of us have a glimmer of optimism.

Groundhogday on February 06 @ 06:16 AM CST

My point is that we are likely to be bad for at least another year. We are returning just 6 scholarship players, none of whom is an NBA player like Melo Trimble. On the spectrum of returning players we are historically weak. And in terms of the incoming guys, none look to be in the instant impact category.

Buckle up and hope that we a good hire we can be relevant again in 2018-19.

Joe Edge on February 05 @ 06:51 AM CST

Something else I don't understand.... How did a shooter, like JCL, lose so much ability/confidence/whatever, that he is no longer effective? Also, while TA wasn't the best shooter before the injuries, his shot is now non-existent. Plus,Tate could shoot his way out of a wet paper bag.... Where are the shooters ? ?

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 07:46 AM CST

Not always getting his feet set, not always in rhythm. And once a shooter misses shots, confidence goes. We need to do a better job as a team of getting JCL started with a few wide open jumpers.

Bear8287 on February 05 @ 08:18 AM CST

Another dimension here is Groce's substitutions.

Players get hot and start to feel some rhythm and boom they're on the bench. Why didn't the hottest Illini on the floor start the 2nd half? Inability to adjust to game situations.

If people wanted a nickname for Groce how about "Mo' Killa" or "The Cooler". How much worse is JCL's shooting percentage going to be as a sophomore than as a freshman? Now there's some good coaching...

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 11:56 AM CST

I'm not a big fan of trying to play the hot hand, but in general I have no idea what Groce is trying to do with his rotations. It is important for players to know their roles, and in order to do that you need to establish somewhat predictable rotations that allow plays to develop chemistry.

HiggsBoson on February 05 @ 10:23 AM CST

It's been obvious to me ever since he got here that JCL is deadly when he squares up his shoulders and sets his feet, and not so much when he doesn't. That is coachable, were he being coached.

Jgreen25 on February 05 @ 06:04 AM CST

I agree that it was time for weber to move on but he got caught up in trying to get players that did not fit his system. I would say things are looking up at Kstate. Maybe Thomas should have given a thumbs up to both weber and Zook. Anyways was at the game yesterday and I am a life long fan. Has there ever been a coach who lacks the amount of x and o's experience as Groce? We call a time out to set a play up and we run the same exact thing every time. Ball screen and probe. How about some double screens for shooters? Or take a page from Wisconsin. Run a disciplined offense when your team lacks athletic talent. Out of bounds plays consist of the same spread 4 on baseline. That is why Groce needs to be let go. He will always lose to other coaches because of in game deficiencies. Anyways go illini.

mrmill on February 05 @ 09:41 AM CST

This is BS. His first 2-3 classes were a huge step down from what he inherited. He wasn't cut out to Manage and maintain a top tier program. He had 2 decent classes at the end, but the one with Crandall and JR was clearly not as good as it looked.

In some ways, someone like Groce would have been a better hire at the time. At least he would have had a chance to capitalize on our brand. Realistically we should have just hired Matta or Altman but picked the wrong mid major guy.

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 09:52 AM CST

Yes, Weber's initial recruiting classes were weak. Then he figured out a better approach and recruited better talent than Groce has been able to bring in. Groce's best season at Illinois was with Weber recruits, and even in Year 5 Groce's best player (by far) committed to Weber.

Jgreen25 on February 05 @ 04:19 PM CST

I would argue but groundhog did it for me. My main argument is the simple fact that Groce can not manage a game. His offense has to be ran with top tier talent like kentucky. With the talent that we have we must have a coach that has multiple set plays with screening involved. Also our lack of defensive knowledge is mind blowing. We have no concept.of help defense which causes both man to man and zone to have breakdowns. Hopefully better days are ahead .

iluvrt on February 06 @ 02:50 AM CST

BS on your BS. Groce should be Weber's assistant. MacThomas is the worst thing that ever happened to UI sports, and as pointed out, he was the hit man - it made no difference what Zooker or Weber did, they were gone. No decent coach wanted to work for the doofus

mrmill on February 06 @ 04:32 AM CST

Great - let him take a job at KSU. Neither should be within 500 miles of our program.

And Weber's "improved recruiting" resulted in 2 solid classes (BP3's class + Nnana/Tracy) + 1 great one on paper that produced next to nothing in reality (other than Meyers proving he was a pro). Again - the barometer needs to be Self/Kruger/Henson. Everything since has been a downward trend.

Groundhogday on February 06 @ 06:19 AM CST

Weber was a step down from Kruger/Self/Henson. No one disagrees with that. Groce is also a major step down from Weber. Hard to debate that empirically.

HiggsBoson on February 05 @ 10:34 AM CST

Thomas was hired to be Hogan's hit man. There was no chance he was going to do anything else. The real problem was that he could not convince any good coaches to take the jobs and did his usual Mid Major Mike thing and hired MAC coaches from Ohio, both of whom were far worse than who they replaced.

That's why it's critical that Whitman have his guy lined up before pulling the trigger on Groce.

Joe Edge on February 05 @ 06:45 AM CST

I think the title of Tyler's piece says it all... Irrelevance ! I feel that despite the bromance that JW has with JG, I think he'll do the right thing for Illinois Basketball. I have no idea who he might choose, and I wouldn't know one candidate from the other. What I'd like to see is ANYONE who can change us from irrelevance, back to relevant and in the national conversation.

I only hope that JW's desire to turn us into a football school, doesn't mean basketball will wilt on the vine...

Groundhogday on February 05 @ 07:44 AM CST

For fun, here are the conference rankings. Not a great year for the B10, and Holtmann looks a little less midmajor when you see that the new Big East is slightly ahead of the B10.


ACC__44.3 Buzz Williams

BE_55.9 Holtmann







MVC_140.4 Marshall


CAA_163.5 Keatts


Bear8287 on February 05 @ 06:33 PM CST

So any guesses on who will be the #14 seed in the BTT?

Illinois 3-8  13-11 
 Rutgers  2-9  13-11

These two look pretty similar to me and the Illini needed 3 OTs to beat Rutgers in Piscataway last season. Rutgers also just won @PSU so they've already accomplished something that the Illini couldn't this season...

Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can say Ni at will to old ladies.

Bear8287 on February 05 @ 06:36 PM CST

Not editable, but different. :-D

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iluvrt on February 06 @ 02:52 AM CST

I doubt UI can contain Sanders, so UI is probably in the driver's seat for no. 14. We used to go to BTT every year - no more - I've taken up ball room bowling

Groundhogday on February 06 @ 11:59 AM CST

Per Kenpom: PSU and UNL are slightly worse than us, Rutgers is much worse. For the remaining conference schedule, we'll be favored to beat PSU at home and Rutgers is probably a toss up on the road. It would be an upset if we managed to win 3 of the last 7 to remain over 0.500 for the season.

@Northwestern – Loss; Penn State – Win; @Iowa – Loss; Northwestern – Loss; @Nebraska – Loss; MSU – Loss; @Rutgers – toss up

Groundhogday on February 07 @ 03:53 PM CST

we won! Gotta soak it up like sunshine in the dead of winter. :)

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