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It’s Do-or-Die for John Groce and the Illini

Illini Coach John Groce could use a drink before the season has even started.

John Groce seems like a really good dude. The kind of guy I would be down to grab a drink with and talk with about more than just hoops. Much of the time, though, good guys finish last, and that unfortunately seems to the place where Groce is headed.

Groce can coach. Damn well, I might add. His 13-seeded Ohio Bobcats, led by point guard D.J. Cooper (a Chicago product), took down Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Michigan squad in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament and cruised to the Sweet 16 before losing an overtime thriller to top-seeded North Carolina. Given his great success at such a small school (his 2010 Ohio team also won a tournament game as a 14-seed), his energy, his strong Midwest recruiting ties and his background – he was Thad Matta’s right-hand man for seven seasons at Xavier and Ohio State – Groce was one of the hottest coaching commodities on the market – a truly perfect fit for an Illini program coming off yet another disappointing season under Bruce Weber.

When Athletic Director Mike Thomas hired then 40-year-old Groce as his program’s next head coach just days after Ohio’s loss to UNC, fans were excited, and rightfully so. Groce immediately put his recruiting abilities on the Illinois map by getting a transfer commitment from one of the top players in the Missouri Valley Conference – Rayvonte Rice. He then landed a top-15 recruiting class for 2013 by bringing in five ESPN Top-100 recruits (only one – Malcolm Hill – was a Bruce Weber recruit).

For Groce, it was an extremely impressive start to his tenure, which he followed up with a 7-seed and first-round win in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Sure, he inherited a pretty experienced roster, led by seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, but Groce turned a team that had missed the NIT into a top-30 team in one season. With the big-time recruiting class coming in, it was all sunshine and rainbows in Champaign.

And then the 2013-14 season started, and that sunshine and those rainbows quickly turned into darkness and despair. The aforementioned recruiting class underwhelmed miserably in its freshman year, what with only three of the five former high school stars averaging double digit minutes and only one of them playing over 15 minutes per game. The Illini finished the regular season losing 12 of their final 18 games (with an eight game skid in the middle) before falling to Clemson in the second round of the NIT, making them the first Illini team to miss the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons since 1991-92.

On top of that, Groce and his staff have dug themselves into a deep recruiting rut that they simply have not been able to claw out of. Sure, they landed 2014 recruit Leron Black and solidified another top-15 class for 2015, but they have missed on way too many potentially program-changing players: Cliff Alexander (Kansas), Quentin Snider (Louisville), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State), Eiljah Thomas (Texas A&M), Charles Matthews (Kentucky), Marcus LoVett Jr. (St. John’s), Dylan Ennis (transferred from Villanova to Oregon), and Johnny Hill (transferred from UT-Arlington to Purdue). A majority of those players are point guards, a position Groce so desperately needs as the biggest strength for his team given how much he loves to utilize the high pick-and-roll in his offense. Needless to say, Illini fans everywhere are starting to get restless and impatient.

After losing Tracy Abrams, their point guard and team captain, to excruciating injuries in back-to-back seasons, junior Jaylon Tate will step in as the only active point guard on the 2015-16 roster. The Simeon product is one of the worst shooters in the Big Ten, which spells serious trouble for an offense that relies so heavily on point guards who have the ability to make quick decisions in high pick-and-roll situations. If Tate still cannot shoot, or if he’s afraid to shoot (only attempted 76 shots in 652 minutes last season), defenses will just sag off and force him to beat them by converting open looks from the wing – not a good formula for Illinois at all.

And if matters can’t get any worse, junior shooting guard Kendrick Nunn, who was likely the favorite to step in as Tate’s backup at the very least, is out for 6-8 weeks with a broken thumb; starting forward Leron Black is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury; and junior forward Darius Paul was kicked off the team.

Between freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (coming off a stress fracture in his leg) and freshman forwards Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams, none of whom are actual point guards, someone will have to step up and fill the void at backup point guard, or even starting point guard if Tate cannot get it done. Williams played a point-forward role during his senior year at Simeon, but Groce would have to find a way to mix it up with defensive assignments if he goes that route, as Williams will not be able to guard point guards at the collegiate level just yet.

Sadly enough, the fate of Illinois’ season is in jeopardy before it has even started. They are in serious position to miss the NCAA tournament for the third straight season – totally unheard of for a program of this caliber. If they are going to right this ship, Groce will need last year’s inefficient offense (ranked 129th nationally) to somehow make strides without an efficient and effective point guard. He’ll need some guys to play out of position, step up and find ways to scrape out as many wins as possible in the brutally tough Big Ten.

This season could be what defines John Groce’s tenure as head coach in Champaign. Right now, fair or not, I don’t like his chances of getting out of this alive.

Someone let him know that I’ll buy him that drink whenever he wants.

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