No matter what you think of John Groce, the Illini coach just hasn't caught many positive breaks in his tenure at Illinois. There was JaQuan Lyle's butterfly effect -- Lyle decommitting from Louisville (then committing to Oregon before decommitting again and ending up at Ohio State) costing Groce his program-leading point guard, Quentin Snider. Cliff Alexander loved Illinois. His parents preferred Kansas. Jalen Brunson really liked Illinois, but his father wanted to move back out East. Jawun Evans really liked Illinois, but his mother had a travel snafu on his official visit from Dallas to Champaign. Tracy Abrams' missed floater against Michigan in 2014 (if it goes in, Illinois likely would have made the NCAA Tournament). Abrams' back-to-back season-ending injuries. Rayvonte Rice's broken hand (though the team played well without him). Mike Thorne Jr. landing awkwardly on his knee in Destin, ending the Illini's three half streak of health and good basketball. Leron Black's two-year-old torn meniscus finally rearing its ugly head following a breakout summer just as the rash of injuries ravaged the rest of the Illini. After returning to the court, Black is now back on the sidelines indefinitely after weeks of battles with swelling and soreness. Don't take Groce to Vegas with you.
Yeah, I get it, no one wants to hear excuses, but injuries are an excuse for this season. They just are. Injuries do not excuse all of Groce's shortcomings, of course. Injuries did not cause Groce's recruiting misses -- no Big Ten quality starting point guard his first four classes, no rim-protecting big man, too much of a reliance on transfers who didn't help build his culture. They do not excuse last season's inexplicable and inexcusable collapse at Purdue and no-show vs. Michigan. They do not excuse near embarrassments against Chicago State or UIC. But they are an excuse for this team not making an NCAA Tournament. Few teams outside of Kentucky can recover from possible season-ending injuries to three of their five starters. Black was the team's best player during the foreign trip. Thorne proved himself to be a massive force in the post, a quality Big Ten center and elite rebounder. Abrams is not a top Big Ten point guard but a big improvement over the Illini's current point guards. Even if Illinois still has its top two players (Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn), picture Indiana without Troy Williams, Thomas Bryant and Robert Johnson. Picture Iowa without Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemens and Adam Woodbury. Picture Michigan without Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton. Oh, wait. We saw that last season, when Michigan went 16-16 and 8-10 in the Big Ten.
The problem for Groce is the end of last season, which left such a sour taste in the fans' mouths. Beilein is easily excused for an inferior, injury-plagued season (as he should be -- he's one of the best coach's in the country, after all) because of his past accomplishments (which are vast). If Groce's team had overcome last season's adversity and made the NCAA Tournament, an inferior, injury-plagued 2015-16 season probably would be easily forgiven by the fan base. Get healthy, regroup and get back on track in 2016-17 with fully healthy Abrams, Thorne and Black added to experienced, tealtned sophomores and senior studs Hill and Nunn. But last March's trash still reaks, and some remnants made their way to the court early this season, even if the roster has been limited.
Did the Illini staff rush back Black too early? That's a fair question that will be asked at Groce's press conference on Friday. Of course, team physicians cleared Black, who had surgery to remove the meniscus on October 9. The typical timetable to return to game play is four to six weeks. He returned to game action on Nov. 15 (missing just the season opener), more than five weeks after surgery. Black played three games before sitting against Chicago State on Nov. 23 due to soreness and swelling. The knee felt better during the Illini's trip to Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic. Black looked better, totaling 20 points and 14 rebounds in 42 minutes. But in the next two games, he went 1-for-11 shooting with 10 rebounds and eight fouls, lacking the explosion he needs to play his style of game. As I wrote last week, Groce is making the right call in shutting down Groce for the time being. Do what's best for the player. And even for the team, Black isn't that useful if he's not the normal, explosive, tenacious Leron Black.
It's time to feed the young guys to the wolves. Let Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands learn how to play defense by puting them into the fire. They have a way higher ceiling than junior walk-on Alex Austin. Let them start -- and maybe expedite -- that long climb to the season. D.J. Williams also should get more time. He adds length and athleticism (two traits the team lacks without Black). Here's how you get on the floor, D.J.: play defense, rebound and bring energy. Watch some film of Leron.
Is a redshirt in the cards for Leron Black? It's way too early to tell. If the knee doesn't recover, it's an option because Black has only played seven games. The Illini will play a minimum of 32 games this season. Black would qualify for a medical redshirt from the NCAA if he plays in fewer than 30 percent of the Illini's games, which would be 9 of 32 (28.1 percent). Ten games played would put him over the threshold in a 32-game season (31.2 percent) and a 33-game season (30.3 percent). But the school also must prove (with medical documents) that the injury is incapacitating, meaning season-ending. So Illinois can't hold him out for an extra season of eligibility if he is medically cleared to play.
What does this all mean for Groce's future? Difficult to answer since his future boss has not yet been hired. How should that future athletic director evaluate 2015-16? Was Illinois competitive? Did Groce get his team to overachieve (anything better than 7-11 in the Big Ten would be relatively impressive given the injuries)? Did the young players develop? Has he added any recruits (nothing yet in 2017)? Also, there's the issue of his contract. Groce is signed through the 2018-19 season (three more seasons after this one). He has a base salary of $400,000 and makes a total salary of $1.7 million. Does Illinois -- which just paid athletic director Mike Thomas $2.5 million to go away and likely will pay football coach Bill Cubit a smaller buyout after the first year of his fresh two-year contract -- want to pay another seven-figure buyout to send a coach away after an injury-ruined season? It seems more likely that the next athletic director will sit down Groce and say, "You get one more year. Make or break. It's your roster. Your recruits. Show me what you got." Or, maybe that athletic director finds the money, finds his guy and chooses a different path. We'll find out in three months.
The rash of injuries seemingly makes 2015-16 a lost season and further clouds the evaluation of Groce.