Well, as most everyone knows by now, Illinois laid an egg against Rutgers, losing 59-62 in a game they desperately needed to boost precarious tournament hopes and cool the temperature on their coach’s seat. I had to work, so I didn’t see or hear the game, but from what I gather, the Illini got out to another slow start, played their way back a bit to go into halftime down 3, built a ten-point lead in the second half, saw that evaporate quickly, then tried to get conservative and nurse a two-point lead to the finish. Obviously, it didn’t work out. Disappointing, and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t watch it.
The big questions around the program now are, as they have been for more than a month now, about the future. Short term, will Illinois make the Big Dance in spite of shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly this season? Surprisingly, there appears to be a decent chance they could get in. It’s a really weak bubble this year, and a 14-loss Illinois team just might squeak in with their decent strength of schedule (21). Illinois’ RPI is 57 (for reference, their worst loss, Rutgers, is 170) and their Ken Pom rating is 67. The Illini’s top wins are against VCU (KP 49), Michigan State (KP 50), Michigan (KP 27), and Northwestern twice (KP 35). Those are decent wins, but there aren’t any top 25 victories in there, and Illinois has been known to lose in spectacular fashion. Illinois doesn’t look like a tournament team to me, but they remain firmly in the conversation nationally, and a couple of B10 tournament wins and the right teams’ losses, and the Illini may yet dance. I’d love that for the seniors.
The biggest question, though, is what happens next? Is John Groce going to be given another year? In reality, this likely means another contract. As discussed in a previous post, Groce is due to be extended (because of how coaches on short contracts are at a recruiting disadvantage) after this season. So the question really isn’t, Does he deserve one more chance? It’s, Does he deserve a 2-3 year extension on top of the 2 years still remaining on his current deal? I like Groce the person, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything in the past five years to suggest he’s the guy to take the Illinois program to the top. (I really get tired of saying that. You probably get tired of hearing it. Everyone’s just tired.) Complicating the situation is, of course, the pool of potential replacements. You certainly don’t want to hire the wrong guy just to make a change. Could Whitman attract a top candidate if he did want to part ways with Groce? Is the right candidate even out there this year? There don’t seem to be any runaway favorites. Cuonzo Martin, the coach at Cal, was discussed thoroughly earlier this year, but he’s struggling to get the Bears into the tournament with a crop of highly rated players, so people seem to have cooled on him a bit. No other names have really caught fire. So maybe the timing isn’t good in terms of the coaching market this year to make a change.
Assuming the right candidate is not out there this year, it makes more sense to retain Groce than to hire the wrong guy. If things go south next season or the next, coaches nationwide will see that Groce was given more than a fair amount of time to shape the program. This perception is important, because hot coaches don’t want to work for an Athletic Director with a quick trigger. If Illinois hires the wrong guy this season and things are clearly worse in two years, we may be stuck with him longer just to “give him a chance.” So, back to Groce, what kind of contract would he sign? Ideally, an extension would be a “prove it” deal. Talented players coming off injury sign these kinds of contracts. They need a shot to show they can still perform at a high level, but at the same time the team paying them needs security in case they can’t. Usually these guys sign short-term deals, sometimes with high performance and goal incentives and low buyouts and/or guaranteed money. This way the players get a chance to bet on themselves and get paid well if they are healthy, and the team is protected from investing long term in players who can’t perform. This is the kind of extension Illinois should be looking for with Groce if they decide to keep him. Groce knows what he’s done so far isn’t up to expectations. Maybe he’ll agree to a deal with incentives for B10 championships and/or NCAA tournament appearances, but with a low buyout penalty for the university. This way, Groce gets to keep his job (it’s unlikely he’d find a better gig anytime soon after struggling at Illinois), and the university gets to see if Groce can turn it around while not being penalized too heavily if a coaching change needs to be made a year or two down the road.
I’m not thrilled with the idea of another season of Groce’s leadership. The team improved defensively, but they still lack a fundamental identity, their offense is inconsistent, and their play calling and late-game strategy leaves much to be desired. I’m still bothered, too, by how long it took the coaching staff to realize that this team was actually 8-deep rather than 11-deep. The incoming recruiting class is certainly exciting, so maybe things will improve next year with the injection of athleticism, but there will be no Malcolm Hill or Maverick Morgan to go to for buckets. Some guys will really need to step up.
The sense right now seems to be that Groce will probably be back, barring some kind of epic meltdown like the Alabama game in the NIT a few years back. He’ll certainly need an extension, and if he signs a “prove it” contract, I’m okay with it. Not excited, but okay. After all, for all we fret about it, it’s just college basketball. And for us fans, there’s always a next year. Most of us will weather the Groce Era and be here when the next guy comes in. But for the players, that four-year window closes fast. I hope Whitman makes the best decision for the young men wearing the Illini uniform.