Less than a month ago, I boldly proclaimed that the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team would win 25 games and go to the NCAA tournament.
Football season hasn’t ended yet (not even for 3-8 Illinois) and I’ve already been proven wrong. Last night, the Fighting Illini lost to the Big South’s Winthrop Eagles 84-80 in overtime after blowing a 10-point lead with three minutes to go by failing to answer Winthrop’s run. It was the first November loss in Champaign since 2007.
Before I get any farther into this, I acknowledge there’s a fair chance Winthrop goes dancing this year; they were 23-9 last season and were only kept out of the dance due to a poor second half showing against UNC Asheville in the Big South championship game. Senior guard Keon Johnson was the preseason conference player of the year, and he showed why in dropping 38 points on the Illini.
Nevertheless, good Big Ten teams win games like this. I thought this was a good Big Ten team. Doubts crept in as we overcame ugly starts against Southeast Missouri and Northern Kentucky, but the return of Leron Black combined with more reps for the recently-injured Jalen Coleman-Lands meant that I wasn’t terribly worried just yet. However, the flaws displayed in the very first game were laid bare, and it sounds painfully familiar to anyone who’s followed the John Groce era.
Just like every other John Groce Illinois team, this year’s Fighting Illini can’t rebound and don’t run a coherent offensive system.
Less than ten days after Northern Kentucky out-boarded Illinois by 11 with a lineup 6’5” or shorter, Winthrop out-boarded Illinois by 3 with a much smaller lineup (one starter at 6’8” compared to two at 6’10” for the Illini). Malcolm Hill was 4 for 17 from the field, but since our offense is largely derived from pick-up basketball, we couldn’t overcome our best player having a cold shooting night. Forward/center Michael Finke was 2 for 7 from beyond the arc, with two misses coming in overtime early in the shot clock. Meanwhile, Jalen Coleman-Lands, who hit 87 threes last year, was 2 for 4 from deep in 20 minutes of action. Our post feeds often looked like happy accidents, but rarely led to points.
So when you don’t run an offensive system and you can’t rebound, you put all your eggs in the basket of on-ball defense. Let’s ask John Groce how we did at that:
#Illini Groce: Tate was our best matchup on (Keon). I thought he wore Tate out. I thought we did a pretty good job knowing where he was at— Derek Piper (@DPiperScout) November 22, 2016
He thought Illinois, in particular Jaylon Tate, did pretty well on Keon Johnson, and if you take away Johnson’s 38 points, Tate mostly held him in check. The 5’7” point guard for the Eagles went down with what looked to be a foot or ankle injury and was helped off the court in pain late in the game. He did, however, return for overtime, where he limped by Tate for several easy layups.
I really do try to avoid saying things like this about college players, but I can’t remember a four-year scholarship player at Illinois having less success in his career than Jaylon Tate. I don’t want to blame Tate too much for this though. It wasn’t his fault he was in the game for 34 minutes getting embarrassed by the best player in the Big South.
No, for that I once again turn to John Groce. Usually in a game like this where a Big Ten team loses to a smaller-conference squad, you see the latter making a lot of tough shots and fighting for its share of the rebounds even though the former grabs most and gets open looks. It’s the other way around. No shot comes easy for Illinois. The only reason it doesn’t show in practice is because Illinois is so bad at help defense that they can’t stop an offense like Illinois.
I really did buy in. I told myself this was going to be the year that John Groce turned the corner. After an unheard-of three-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, the Illinois Fighting Illini would return to their rightful place in the Big Dance and then things would get rolling. With a squad this deep, we would surely challenge the top of the Big Ten. Hey John Groce, that’s going to happen this year, right?
It’s not fair to compare John Groce to Lex Luthor because Luthor would often get close to his goals before ultimately being denied by an unstoppable force of nature, while John Groce just took a very talented team and lost at home to Winthrop.
This is the worst loss of the John Groce era, an era in which the Fighting Illini have gotten progressively worse each year. It’s unthinkable that we could top last year’s 19 losses, but then again, missing the NCAA tournament four years in a row was once seen as unthinkable at Illinois. Nothing is impossible with Groce at the helm.
This is absolutely unacceptable. There is no excuse to have a team this bad in year five. This wouldn’t even be acceptable for a five-year football rebuild, but in basketball where fortunes can change much more quickly, this is beyond the pale. The best team John Groce has had at Illinois by a wide margin is his first team, which was left over from the freshly-fired Bruce Weber.
The 2017 recruiting class ended up being the best of Groce’s tenure, but it’s hard to imagine we would lose any of these guys by bringing in a coach who has some idea how to coach basketball. When John Groce is fired, I will be flat-out shocked if he is even interviewed for a job at a major conference program. I’ll even be surprised if he’s hired as a head coach anywhere on the Division 1 level.
I guess I’m writing this article to let you know that you were right to laugh at my optimistic prediction and that I was a fool for believing that John Groce could do anything but get the least out of a fairly talented team. If he took over the head coach job at Kentucky right now, he could get them to miss the NIT. Next up for Illinois is #19 West Virginia at Madison Square Garden. I’ve been complaining about Illinois basketball not being on TV much in the early going, and now I wish like hell that our shame wasn’t about to be broadcast to the nation.
This season that just a few weeks ago held the promise of a long-awaited resurgence has devolved into a four month death march for a doomed head coach. I’m revising my projection to suggest that we don’t even get an NIT invite.
Every time I’ve had positive thoughts about the John Groce Illini, they’ve proven me wrong. Well, here you go, Illinois. Here you go, Groce. Now that I think you’re terrible, prove me wrong again.