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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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U of I vs. NU: A Preview of Chicago’s Big Ten Teams

The state of Illinois will find itself divided come Sunday's matchup between Illinois and Northwestern.

The state of Illinois will find itself divided come Sunday’s matchup between Illinois and Northwestern.

This Sunday will mark another chapter of the University of Illinois and Northwestern Rivalry. After the Wildcats went into Champaign this past November and stole a game from the Fighting Illini’s abysmal football program, U of I fans are excited to get revenge on what will likely be a double digit affair or, at the very least, a W in the ever-important Big Ten schedule.

The two teams could not come into the game on a more different path. The Fighting Illini have showed potential early in the season with a near win over #15 Oregon and an upset victory over then #23 Missouri. In fact, with a 2-0 start coming into this week, the Illini earned a #23 ranking, their first Top 25 appearance of the season. Northwestern, on the other hand, hasn’t just lost – they’ve lost often… and ugly. First, it was devastating losses to in-state rivals Illinois St. and DePaul. Then, it was absolute thrashings in their first three Big Ten games to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. Some Wildcat fans (Yes, there are a few out there), are already starting to look ahead to their February 8th home meeting with Nebraska, just to make sure they don’t put up the dreaded goose-egg this year in conference play. But, that begs the question: can a more meaningful game like this put the fire in them to surprise a few folks, and actually win one at Welsh-Ryan arena? Let’s examine.

Northwestern Coach Chris Collins

Northwestern Coach Chris Collins

Northwestern came into the year with its typical hype: “Will this be the year they finally get over the hump and make it to the NCAA Tournament?” All signs had presumably been pointed in the right direction. A new, fresh, cerebral coach in Chris Collins was coming home; combo Guard Jershon Cobb was coming off his one-year suspension; and Drew Crawford was coming back for one last hurrah after shoulder surgery. Nevertheless, what those optimistic Wildcat fans failed to realize was that the “NU Era” was going to be a work in progress. Collins can only do so much with what he was given. Sure, Crawford, Cobb, and even Center Alex Olah (23 points on 10-14 shooting against Wisconsin) have shown promise when healthy, but together it’s simply not enough. Former Coach Bill Carmody surrounded Collins with mediocre 2-star recruits that were able to hide their lack of talent through the Princeton offense.

Unfortunately that is no longer the case. Collins fast-paced offense has, naturally, resulted in more shots being attempted, but in Northwestern’s case, that means more shots missed. The Wildcats rank 281st in three-point percentage (31% – down from 159th last season) and 265th nationally in effective field goal percentage (47%), which pegs them dead last in the Big Ten in both categories. To really drive this point home, take Junior Captain Dave Sobolewski. A former All Big-Ten Freshman, who shot 34% from three last year, now has his shooting woes exposed, as Sobolewski’s knocking down an appalling 17% – yes, 17% – of his threes, which is completely inexcusable and unacceptable for a Big Ten starting point guard. If Wildcat fans truly want to see some good basketball, they’ll be best served taking a drive over to Saint Rita High School and watching Top 70 Recruit Victor Law lace it up, as he’ll be joining the Wildcat program next fall. With Law and another 4-star recruit Brian McIntosh coming in, the future is bright for Northwestern. For now, they’ll just have to wait – something they’ve certainly grown accustomed to over the years. 

Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten's third leading scorer.

Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten’s leading scorer

Meanwhile, Illinois who, in the second year of the John Groce era, has continued to impress. Groce came in last year to an experienced team that could have easily made his first-year coaching the orange and blue a living nightmare. Instead, they listened to him from the start, rallied around his contagious passion and energy, and found themselves just minutes away from a Sweet 16 berth. After losing key seniors such as DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Tyler Griffey, many thought this would be a rebuilding year before the Illini were experienced enough to contend with Groce’s first official recruiting class. Instead, with key transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, along with another year of experience and development for Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand, the Illini have put together a legitimate squad that finds themselves right in the middle of the pack of the top-heavy Big Ten. There is no disputing that Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin are the elite of the group, but I think you’ll find that, as this team continues to grow together, the sky is the limit for them, and there’s no reason they can’t contend with Iowa and Michigan for that fourth spot. After an absolute embarrassment on Wednesday night at the hands of Wisconsin, you better believe Coach Groce will have his Illini as prepared as ever for a bounce back win and, most importantly, their first Big Ten victory outside of State Farm Center.

At the end of the day it would be a great story to see Coach Collins win his first Big Ten game in Evanston, but the fact remains: the Cats will continue to struggle. The Illini are going to shoot… and shoot often. Rice and Abrams will have big games, and the Illini will prevail in the first chapter of the Groce vs. Collins era.

Final score: Illini-72 Northwestern-58

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