“Study the past if you would define the future” ~Confucius.
I thought I’d let yesterday’s loss rest for a night before commenting on its implications for the future of Illini basketball. I was working yesterday during the game, so I only caught part of it on the radio. It sounded like Illinois played tight in the beginning and got behind (as we’ve seen them do on the road against decent teams). Thanks to a gargantuan effort from Tracy Abrams, Illinois nearly made it a game for a while, but Michigan stretched the lead back out and won by 20. It sounded like Malcolm Hill was struggling with a lower body injury that the radio announcers said was keeping him from getting as much lift on his shots. After the game, John Groce denied it was a factor, but Hill only scored four points and was noticeably limping, so I have a hard time accepting that it didn’t affect the senior guard’s performance. Maverick Morgan also had a tough day, scoring four and committing five turnovers. Te’Jon Lucas also had four, and starting forward Leron Black was held scoreless. With that many guys struggling, the outcome wasn’t likely to favor the orange and blue.
Michigan showed little ill effect from their harrowing travel experience, unless you count their reversible practice jerseys and shorts. Good for them for focusing and playing through fatigue. That lack of sleep may catch up to them today against Purdue, but for the game yesterday they played with energy and purpose, two characteristics we’ve rarely seen the Illini display against quality competition.
With the NCAA Tournament all but out of reach (a quick search this morning didn’t turn up any brackets that included Illinois), the only question remaining is whether John Groce will be patrolling the SFC sideline next season. Based on a review of his performance, he shouldn’t be. We’ve gone over this repeatedly since the beginning of 2017, but Groce’s teams have failed to perform against top competition, and they’ve failed to win big games. More troublingly, the program has not established a successful identity under Groce’s tenure. We see the same struggles in year five that we saw in year one: lack of offensive continuity, poor in-game adjustments, puzzling lineups and substitution patterns, long stretches of dismal play in the Big Ten, etc. Groce has had some bad luck with recruiting, injury, and suspension, but ultimately, after five years he’s responsible for every facet of the program, including the players he’s brought in. If they don’t fit the system or leave the team, that’s on him. Thing is, I’m more concerned with the system (or lack of) that we’ve seen over the past few seasons than with the players running it. If Groce had shown a coherent and consistent (and potentially successful) strategy for an offensive and defensive identity for Illinois basketball, I’d be more interested in looking into some of the individual player situations that have gone against him in the recent past (Nunn, D. Paul, Black’s suspension, Cosby, Abrams’ injuries, recruiting woes with Quentin Snider and Cliff Alexander). But that identity hasn’t materialized. There’s no framework in place on which to build long term success with the right players. That’s the huge problem here
The Herald-Review did a quick slideshow of Illini coaches this morning. It’s kind of fun to see the pics, and it conveniently showed each coach’s record. Here are those numbers in table form with winning percentage added.
|1906-1907||F. L. Pinckney||1-10||9.1|
|1908-1910||H. V. Juul||12-10||54.5|
|1910-1912||T. E. Thompson||14-14||50|
|1922-1936||J. Craig Ruby||145-95||60.4|
A couple of things jump out looking at this data from Illinois’ coaching past. First, Groce has the second lowest winning percentage of any coach on the bench for at least 50 games (about two seasons in the modernish era). The man with the lowest winning percentage, Harv Schmidt, took over in the years immediately following the Slush Fund Scandal that decimated the program. I’ll have to look into that some time. In any case, if there was ever an excuse for a poor record, that was it. Second, since 1912, Illinois has only had three coaches who have won fewer than 60% of their games: Schmidt, Bartow, and Groce. This data also suggests that over the past 100 years, Illinois has been a fairly successful program. The college basketball landscape has changed a lot in that time, but just between 1975 and 2012, Illinois coaches were winning over 62% of their games. The overall winning percentage for a long-tenured coach obscures individual peaks and valleys, but the numbers suggest that Groce is a mediocre Big Ten coach and has led the Illini to records well below program average.
It’s always hard to give bad news to a good person. I don’t envy Josh Whitman having to fire a man he clearly likes and who by all accounts is a high-character guy. By any metric, however, Groce clearly hasn’t gotten the job done at Illinois, and it doesn’t look like he’s building a successful system going forward. The last two losses in must-win games, one against the bottom team in the Big Ten, the other by 20 points to a Michigan team with every right to be distracted, show that the Illini winning streak at the end of the season was likely more attributable to favorable scheduling than to real improvement. Aside from personality, the recruiting class is the only factor Groce has going for him. And it’s not enough. Time for Whitman to have the tough conversation and find the guy (or girl) to bring Illinois back to perennial top-25 status and, with any luck, lead the program to greater prominence.