*I wrote most of this before the Wisconsin game the other night, and I’ve revised a bit toward the negative. The defense was better, but man, the offense and lack of team cohesion is tough to watch. Let’s say this post is me at my most generous…*
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I’m coming around to thinking there’s a case for John Groce staying for another year, depending on a couple of factors.
First, the case to stay:
The recruits. Groce and his staff have a strong class lined up for next year with a nice combination of skill and athleticism at positions of need. Trent Frazier, a dynamic scoring point guard from Wellington High School in West Palm Beach, is lighting up gyms all over Florida. The lefty is a dangerous scorer, both pulling up and off the dribble. ESPN called him “a one man fast break” – where have we heard that before? Frazier, a four-star recruit, has expressed support for Coach Groce on Twitter.
Javon Pickett is a borderline three/four-star shooting guard/wing from Bellville-East High School in Belleville, IL. That’s a lot of slashes in one sentence, which might actually be appropriate for this player’s skill set. He’s a plus athlete who plays tough defense and finishes at the rim. After he signed his NLI (National Letter of Intent, the agreement that binds a student athlete to a school), Pickett talked about looking forward to playing for John Groce. The last Belleville-East player who suited up for the Illini worked out pretty well. You might have heard of him; his name is Malcolm Hill.
Jeremiah Tilmon is the big prize in this class, both literally and figuratively. The 6-10 East St. Louis center is a four/five-star recruit and ranked the #41 player in the country by ESPN. Tilmon has all the tools to be a great post player, but he needs refinement; a shoulder injury last spring kept him out of summer ball. Tilmon has a 7-2 wingspan and the athleticism to defend the paint and clean up the boards. His numbers don’t show him as a prolific scorer at this point, but post players are so dependent on guards to get touches that it’s hard to say. The book on him suggests he needs to develop a couple of go-to post moves, but if he puts in the work, he sure looks like an NBA pick and maybe an early entrant. He’s definitely the highest profile recruit of the John Groce era. Tilmon’s lead recruiter was Jamall Walker, and Walker’s presence on the staff may have a significant impact on Tilmon’s actually suiting up for the Illini next fall.
The final player in the 2021 class is a familiar name. Da’Monte Williams is a four-star combo guard from Peoria Manual High School. In spite of a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL), Williams is still the 91st ranked player according to ESPN. Williams reminds of his dad, Illini great Frank Williams. Although not as heralded as Frank and without the same handles, Da’Monte can also score in bunches and finish with contact. Also like Frank, he needs to work on his motor, which is to say, locking in and giving consistent effort while he’s on the court. Before the injury in early December, Williams looked more assertive. In a game against North Chicago, he scored 28 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, handed out 2 assists, and blocked 2 shots. Da’Monte has a lot of potential. By the time he leaves Illinois, D. Williams could have carved out his own legacy.
Illini Recruiting class stats as of 1/31/17
*The accuracy of these stats is questionable. The numbers varied a bit from different sites, but at least we can get an idea of what sort of production the recruits are having in their senior years.
The contract. In addition to bringing in a more than solid recruiting class, a couple of whom would likely at least look elsewhere if Groce and his staff don’t return, John Groce is on contract through the 2018-2019 season. That means he’s got 2 years after this year. One of my concerns with retaining Groce after this season was my assumption that he only had one year left on his contract and therefore would require an extension in the current culture of NCAA coaching and recruiting. Lame duck coaches aren’t good for anyone. But with 2 years left, that might change the game a bit. According to the extension Groce signed in 2014, if the university terminates his employment before the end of his contract, he is owed twice his annual salary of $400,000 for each of the remaining years of his contract. So, if Groce was let go in April, the university would be on the hook for $1.6 million minus whatever salary Groce got from a subsequent employer.
The question for me is, does Whitman have to extend Groce’s contract again after this season? Or is two years remaining enough to show faith in the coach without committing further resources to what has so far been a disappointing tenure? Most of us thought 2016-2017 was the “prove it” year, but maybe that’s next season. If Whitman doesn’t have to extend the contract, and if Groce can show progress with the current underclassmen, then I might be okay with keeping the coach another season. That gives him a chance to bring in his best recruiting class and see whether he can coach them up. The Illini hang onto a solid class and don’t have to pay a man $800,000 not to coach. If things go south, there’s only one year remaining to buyout Groce’s contract, and the incoming coach has a talented and experienced group of young players to work with.
All that said, on the other side, can Whitman not extend Groce and expect to get any recruiting traction for the next couple of years? Would Groce sign a “prove it” extension that was heavy on incentives rather than guaranteed money? There are a lot of factors for Josh Whitman to consider, including which coaches are available/willing to replace Groce in the event he decides to make a change. Also crucial, would Illini fans support another year under Groce’s leadership?
If I’m being completely honest, at this point, it doesn’t look like John Groce is the guy for Illinois long term. He hasn’t installed a successful system, either on offense or on defense, nor has he created a strong program identity. After almost five years, he still looks like he’s feeling his way during games with multiple substitutions and ever-changing lineup combinations. The team’s consistently slow starts suggest they are under prepared or under motivated. The defensive lapses and lack of coordination indicate problems with the system, with understanding, with communication, and, perhaps, with the athleticism to stay in front of ball handlers and beat an offensive player to a spot on the floor. Groce is a likable guy, and his players say all the right things in interviews, but he’s not leading this program up the conference ladder.
Coaching decisions are seldom as simple as fans want to think. Mike Thomas made a bit of a mess of the big-market athletics at Illinois, but Josh Whitman looks like a guy who can right the ship. Sometimes the best decision is to move swiftly, as he did with the Lovie hire, and other times it’s to be patient and see how the season and the coaching markets develop. Whitman hit a homerun with Lovie, but getting the basketball program right will shape his legacy at Illinois.
Photo: Nick Wass, AP, via Chicago Suntimes. http://chicago.suntimes.com/sports/maryland-never-trails-in-big-ten-opening-rout-of-illinois/