Now let’s take a look at the past seven seasons:
|Year||Overall Record||B10 Rec||B10 Rank||RTs
|Highest RT Played||Avg Rank of RTs Played||Wins vs RTs|
|11-12||17-15||6-12||9||9||5||13.8||19 Gonz, 5 OSU, 10 MSU|
|12-13||23-13||8-10||7||11||1||8.7||@10 Gonz, 8 OSU, 1 IU, @18 MN|
|13-14||20-15||7-11||8||11||4 (x2)||14.7||@18 MSU, @24 Iowa|
|15-16||15-17||5-13||12||8||4||12.4||20 Pur, 20 Iowa|
A couple more notes: Bruce Weber coached the 10-11 and 11-12 seasons. When John Groce took over, the Illini had been to 16 NCAA Tournaments in the past 23 years, most recently in 10-11. You’ll recall the Illini had made one Tourney run (62-63) in the 23 years leading up to Lou’s first team. Whereas the number of NCAA invitations averaged 36.8 during Lou’s first five seasons, the field during Groce’s tenure at Illinois has held steady at 68.
From these numbers, it looks as though the Illini have been going in the wrong direction under Groce. Groce’s first team was pretty good and advanced to the NCAA Round of 32 in 2013 while playing a really tough schedule. The following year, Groce lost five players to graduation and another four transferred out. That’s significant turnover. That year he brought Scout’s #20 ranked recruiting class, featuring current Illini seniors Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Jaylon Tate in addition to departed Austin Colbert and Kendrick Nunn. In 2013-14, the Illini played another tough schedule featuring 11 ranked teams, but those teams’ average ranking was 14.7, a full 6 points worse than the year before. The following seasons, Illinois experienced more roster turnover with suspensions and transfers and some big recruiting misses, and their record and conference ranking continued to fall. In addition, they played fewer ranked teams (with worse rankings), and won fewer of the games. Further, after having made the NCAA Round of 32 in 2013, they went the NIT second round the following season, then the NIT first round, and missed the postseason altogether last year.
Because we can, let’s check out just a few more numbers on the past seven seasons:
|Year||Coach||SOS||RPI||KP||Class Rank (Frosh)|
Teamrankings.com; kenpom.com; recruiting rankings based on Scout’s top 25 list.
Weber’s 2010-2011 team was the best of the bunch, and Groce’s 2012-2013 team wasn’t far behind. Both were senior-led squads, and the teams struggled the next year to keep the ball rolling. Most analysts think Ken Pom is a more accurate rating system than the RPI or Strength of Schedule. Judging only by Ken Pom, Groce got the Illini back on track in his first season, but has dropped in the rankings each year since. This season will probably be better than last year’s injury and controversy-ridden campaign, but it is unlikely to surpass the 60 achieved by the 14-15 squad.
Stats can be deceiving and often don’t tell the whole story. Unfortunately, not only are the numbers under Groce sliding, but those who follow the team see that statistical decline playing out on the court. The Illini haven’t progressed, lack a well-defined system and identity, and seem to lack leadership. One of the arguments for retaining Groce is to keep the current recruiting class intact, and it is a great class. But check out Weber’s last three classes. He obviously failed to capitalize on the 2004-2005 run, but two of his last three classes checked in pretty high. He didn’t get any guys in his last year, but the previous two seasons he’d brought in nine high school recruits. A closer look at Weber’s second-to-last class shows four-stars Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw, and Mychael Henry as well as three-star Devin Langford and two-star Ibbie Djimbde. Of these, only Egwu and Abrams finished at Illinois, and the others never became the solid college players their high school rankings predicted. I suppose this goes to show a couple of things: first, there’s been talent at Illinois. Maybe not top-ten or top-20 talent, but better than the KP rankings of 50+. Second, it’s hard to predict how recruits will turn out. All that promise doesn’t always translate to results at the college level. So are the recruits enough reason to retain Groce? My opinion in a nutshell: Nope.
It’s tough from this position to make an accurate comparison between Lou Henson’s first five seasons and John Groce’s. The benefit of hindsight shows us that Lou would go on to become the winningest coach in Illini basketball history, a Hall of Famer, and a beloved member of the community. Will John Groce get a few more years to prove he belongs in Lou’s echelon? Does he deserve it? The numbers suggest Lou had the Illini on the ascendant, and friends paying attention then tell me that his teams passed the eye test, showing a system and a program identity developing. Groce’s numbers are descending, and excuses can be offered pointing to recruiting misses, missing classes inherited from Weber, and some bad luck with injuries and suspensions. But part of team management and leadership is figuring out how to deal with the unexpected, and he has failed to do this consistently. Groce’s recent teams are not passing the eye test, and there’s no evidence of a foundation being laid for long term success. From this vantage point, John Groce is not the next Lou Henson.