CHAMPAIGN - Illinois head coach John Groce received a call no coach ever wants to receive -- especially in a foreign country.
On Tuesday, Groce spoke to the media for the first time about junior forward Darius Paul’s arrest and subsequent dismissal from the team.
“Obviously just an unfortunate situation,” Groce said. “You don’t want to get that news if you’re a coach. If you do it long enough, you’re probably going to get it at least once at some point and time, if not more. Obviously, we have standards that we expect and that was just an unfortunate situation. It’s not what we planned for or want, but it happened.”
Paul, 21, was arrested in Deauville, France, and charged with vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest. Groce sent Paul home from the trip and officially dismissed Paul from the team last Friday. The Illini head coach declined to comment further on the incident and whether Paul was alone when the arrest occurred.
“That’s between me, him and his family,” Groce said.
“I have great respect for him and his family, obviously his brother (former Illini Brandon Paul) who I coached. At this point and time for us, I made the decision that I thought was right, which was to dismiss him. But we’re going to continue to have talks with the family and help him in any way that we can in moving forward.”
It was Paul’s second run-in with the law during his time with the Illini. Paul was arrested by campus police in April 2014 for underage drinking and resisting arrest.
For that incident, Groce suspended him for the entire season, and Paul played at Lamar State College-Port Arthur, a junior college in Texas. He returned to campus this summer but had not practiced due to offseason shoulder surgery. Paul did not play on the foreign trip but traveled with the team.
The Illini used three seasons worth of scholarships on Paul, who transferred to Illinois after earning Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year honors in his first season at Western Michigan, but Paul never played a regular-season game for the orange and blue.
Groce said the Paul family will decide Darius Paul’s next step and whether to continue to play basketball at the college level but said he’s confident Paul has the talent to have those opportunities.
Groce said that “without question” he still feels comfortable with his decision to give Paul a second chance to make an impact at Illinois.
“I would hope that if that were my own son, I’d do it the exact same way,” Groce said. “If it was a player with a different name, I’d do it the exact same way. We gave him an opportunity and we’re going to continue to work with him. I’ve always been a coach who believes in second chances, especially when you’re 18 to 22 and in the environment of a stressful arena of athletics and being a student on campus and all the different things that come with that. I’ve always erred that way. I’ve done that my entire career.
“But obviously at some point, accountability becomes a factor. Culture becomes a factor. You certainly at any point as a parent or a coach want to become an enabler. So for me, it was more about the decision I felt comfortable with this time as I looked through the eyes of the university, the athletic department, the men’s basketball program, our team and our locker room. And as important, it’s what’s best for him at this juncture.”
Coleman-Lands ‘feels good’, x-ray soon
Illinois got a glimpse of two of its freshmen, wings D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan, on the foreign trip. But the most promising of the first-year players, Jalen Coleman-Lands, got around Europe in a walking boot.
Coleman-Lands, a top-50 recruit out of Indiana who was expected to play a key role on the Illini this season, suffered a stress fracture in his left leg during the offseason.
On Tuesday, Groce responded to rumors that Coleman-Lands’ injury could be more severe than the Illini head coach has previously stated.
“It’s the same as what I told you before,” Groce said. “At this juncture, he did not participate in foreign trip practices. He did not participate in foreign trip games. We have an x-ray on the stress fracture coming here September 1-ish, and then we’ll know a lot more at that time in terms of what that means. He’s feeling great. It’s hard to keep him from coming down even with the boot on and shoot and throwing up runners. He feels good, and we’re excited about that. We think he’s made a lot of progress and we hope for his return here, certainly sooner rather than later.”
Abrams will attempt comeback
Most know Tracy Abrams is a fighter, so it’s no surprise that the Illinois fifth-year senior guard won't quit on his college career.
Groce said the fifth-year point guard who will miss his second straight season due to injury -- he suffered a torn ACL last offseason and a torn Achilles tendon this July -- will apply for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA.
Abrams’ will have used up his five years to play four after this season, but the NCAA sometimes grants a sixth year of eligibility in special circumstances.
“I certainly don’t want to speak for the NCAA, but … I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a situation where a guy’s had two back-to-back season-enders before the season started,” Groce said. “That’s pretty rare. I’m certain they will take that into consideration.”
Abrams averaged double-digit points for the Illini during both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons and has been a team captain for the last three seasons.
“We’ll do everything we can to help Tracy recover and get his health back,” Groce said. “I know he’s pursuing a master’s degree. We’ll do everything we can to help him move forward.”