John Groce is under the microscope. And that's completely fair. The Illini basketball coach is in his fourth season at Illinois. And the Illinois basketball program doesn't appear much improved, if at all.
But it seems like -- just like with previous coaches under fire -- that many are picking sides (pro-Groce or anti-Groce) and demanding that all pick sides too. We're in an era where loudness wins. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless get paid seven figures and get monster ratings because they pick sides and shout their reasons of why they think their side is right -- sometimes even when they don't in believe in what they're saying. Not to get political, but Donald Trump's influence only seems to grow as his volume grows -- even if the content of his speech is divisive. Yet, most of us are in the middle. I tend to be one of those people. I don't believe in "embrace debate" or that I need to pick a side and argue for that side incessantly (even if I have to skew the facts to do so). I have not made up my mind on the future of Groce. Many of you haven't. And that's OK. We still have three months left to fully evaluate his first four seasons.
But admittedly, these are a huge three months for Groce. What does Groce need to do to get Year Five? In its simplest sense: show progress. But what does that entail? Only the next AD -- who hasn't been chosen yet -- knows that answer. Maybe he/she will come in wanting to make a change regardless. Maybe the next AD will look at Groce's misfortune and give him one more make-or-break season. Obviously, missing three straight NCAA Tournaments (something that hasn't happened at Illinois since 1979) looks like reality. Illinois (8-6, 0-1 Big Ten) is projected by KenPom.com to finish 14-17, 6-12 Big Ten. Groce needs to exceed those expectations. But, yes, those expectations are admittedly smaller than they should be at Illinois. You can both want more from Groce but also still sympathize with the Illini head coach, who hasn't received many breaks these past two seasons. His players have suffered several freak injuries -- there seems to be no correlation between any of them that would suggest a training issue, unlike the torn ACL issue during spring football -- that have kept the Illini from reaching their ceilings in each season. If Groce ultimately doesn't succeed at Illinois, it wouldn't surprise if he succeeded elsewhere with just a good break or two. Still, Groce's teams have lost games they shouldn't have lost the last few seasons: blowing big leads to Oregon, Michigan and Purdue in 2014-15 and losing to North Florida and Chattanooga during nonconference play this season.
Where does Groce stack up among Big Ten coaches? Well, when you're in a conference that features Tom Izzo, John Beilein, Thad Matta, Mark Turgeon (and yes, maybe even Tom Crean), that's a high standard. But that's part of being a Big Ten coach. Is Groce the coach to lead Illinois to once again compete for a Big Ten Championship against Izzo, Belein, Matta, etc.? Three and a half seasons into his time with the Illini, there isn't yet a lot of evidence for the affirmative. That's an issue for him. He needs his team to stay healthy. He also needs to add more top talent.
That's why his recruiting performance the next three months may be more important than the on-court results. This Illini team likely won't make the NCAA Tournament. With injuries to Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black -- both remain out indefinitely with knee injuries, though Thorne may return to practice soon -- the Illini likely don't have enough in the post to win 11 of the next 17 Big Ten games, which likely is needed to make the NCAA Tournament. So Groce can best show progress by landing more future talent.
The Illini should be all-in on Nick Rakocevic at this point. The 6-foot-11 St. Joseph's product is having a reputation-redeeming prep season, as Ryan Easterling wrote. Illinois still has two scholarships available for 2016-17. One likely will go to Tracy Abrams, if he receives a medical hardship waiver. If Thorne returns this season (I expect he will at this point), Rakocevic would be a perfect fit for the final spot. Rakocevic is tall, skilled (not as skilled as Michael Finke), bouncy (more so than Finke) and a very good rebounder. While Illinois' point guard issues are well-documented, landing an impact five also has been a huge issue. Most programs backed off Rakocevic due to immaturity issues and a lack of production. Most are jumping back on for one of the Midwest's top remaining prospects. Illinois should make him a huge priority.
Then Groce needs to get an in-state prospect to get the train moving in 2017. Jordan Goodwin appears more willing to take his time. Illinois remains his leader, as Derek Piper reported. But with Illinois struggling, Goodwin seems to be waiting on a reason to pull the trigger early (maybe another 2017 prospect to commit to Illinois). Meanwhile, other programs are taking notice of the tough, do-everything wing. Including Purdue. That scares me. Goodwin appears to be a perfect fit for Painter's program. But Groce needs to land those kind of players, especially those in-state. So the first domino may need to be someone else, possibly Peoria Manual's Da'Monte Williams or Belleville East's Javon Pickett. One of the arguments for Groce is he has made deep relationships in the Class of 2017. But he has to show that those have paid off. Yes, a new coach would have to make those inroads quickly during the spring, summer and fall. That could be difficult. But Groce landed Malcolm Hill (who was committed to Bruce Weber) and Kendrick Nunn within months of getting the Illinois job. It's kind of a catch-22. Because of the on-court struggles, Illinois needs to land some top talent. But because of the on-court struggles, landing top talent is made more difficult.
Illinois basketball again seems stale. Worse, it feels a bit irrelevant in the Big Ten and national landscape. While Groce has received a bunch of bad breaks, he likely needs to find a way to revive excitement in the program by either exceeding the recalibrated expectations of this season or by giving more hope for future seasons by landing some difference-making talent -- preferrably a bit of both. But he will return a talented roster next season: Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Abrams, Black, Finke, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams, and Groce adds Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols. It's a bit tempting to let him come back and coach that group for a make-or-break season. Also, Groce's contract runs through 2018-19. After paying former AD Mike Thomas $2.5 million to go away, Illinois may not want to pay another seven-figure buyout.
Sorry, I have no hot take on the complicated issue. If Groce's team were fully healthy and still struggling like it is, I'd have a clearer answer. But the Illini have three likely starters and high-impact players in street clothes. The team likely would be much different and much better with them on the court. The narrative would feel a lot different if the Illini were 10-4, or if the second half of Purdue didn't happen last season. But those things haven't happened, and Groce's staff and roster haven't had answers to stop the bleeding, not yet. Admittedly, the more the losses accrue and the longer Illinois goes without good recruiting news, it makes some new names (like Valparaiso's Bryce Drew) more appealing.
Many have decided on Groce's future at Illinois, on one side or the other. I haven't. And that's OK. After all, we don't yet know who's making the decision on Groce, and there are three months left for Groce to win games and land recruits.