Werner: Illini hoops toeing the line of 'The Irrelevant'

Michigan State's athletics success is the envy of, end goal for Illinois

I took a moment to take in my surroundings at East Lansing. I need to remind myself to do this sometimes. Between tweets and live blogging, I often forget to take a few moments to appreciate my view, and Thursday's was a baseline courtside vantage point at the Breslin Center. What did I see? An arena watching a team without its superstar (Denzel Valentine) feasting on its former, now-wounded rival (crushing Illinois 79-54). A crowd -- without its still-winter-breaking students -- singing its fight song a capella (when was the last great "I-L-L, I-N-I" chant?), a moment of pure bliss as it watched a team that will be favored to make a Final Four -- another one (head coach Tom Izzo already has seven of those). And it's not a now-or-nevver season because Izzo has his best-ever recruiting class coming in. And then, there was football coach Mark Dantonio receiving a standing ovation during a TV timeout (when was the last arena standing ovation for an Illini football coach? 2007?). Sure, Dantonio's team the week prior had been blown out of the College Football Playoff semifinal by powerhouse Alabama. But after nine seasons, Dantonio has built Spartans football from a Big Ten middle man (and sometimes worse) to Big Ten powerhouse.

Michigan State fans are in sports heaven right now. Their call-in complaints on sports radio are about the "struggle" for football to overtake Michigan and Ohio State as the pre-eminent Big Ten power (not how to simply reach a bowl game) and how basketball can avoid the "disappointment" of not getting out of an NCAA regional (now a destination for the program it hosted on Thursday). My view Thursday was another reminder of how far and how long Illinois must climb to reach MSU's heights. Illini fans are in, at best, in sports purgatory. At worst...

Illinois basketball is toeing the line of irrelevance. And that's not a good thing for Illini coach John Groce. While Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa have provided blueprints of Big Ten athletic department success, the Illini athletic department (even the basketball program) more closely resembles Minnesota at the moment. An 0-3 start to Big Ten play -- and soon, likley an 0-4 start -- was not all that unexpected given Illinois' severely depleted roster and tough early slate. But that doesn't make the reality of it any more palatable, especially in Year Four of Groce. Again, I sympathize for Groce. I don't know what he did to whom, but someone apparently wants to put him through the ringer. No coach has gone through more hardship the last year or so. Of course, that doesn't excuse every shortcoming (recruiting a point guard, recruiting a center, transfers not working out or the embarrassing end to the 2014-15 season).

Injuries are an excuse for this season, but that doesn't change the reality of the season or the state of the program. Yes, this team likely would be better with Mike Thorne Jr.Leron Black and Tracy Abrams healthy all season. Yes, Illinois probably would've won another game or two if Kendrik Nunn hadn't missed six games so far this season (five due to a thumb injury and one to witness the birth of his child), or if Jaylon Tate didn't miss four games with a finger injury, or if Khalid Lewis didn't miss two games with the mumps, or if Jalen Coleman-Lands hand't missed an entire offseason due to a stress fracture in his leg. The problem is that we don't know how much better they'd be. Would Illinois be 12-3 right now? Would they be 10-5? Would they be 9-6? We simply don't know. After all, this team was projected to be a bubble team when healthy. We -- and more importantly -- the next athletic director, can only evaluate the reality. And right now, the reality is that Illinois needs to go 8-7 the rest of the season to be eligible for the N.I.T. Another missed March Madness drags Illinois closer to irrelevancy.

I sound like a broken record, but Groce must show progress, either through wins or recruiting. The Illini need to be competitive this season. Losses like last weekend's at Ohio State aren't all that disappointing. Illinois played hard and well. A short-handed Illini team was a play or two away from a big road victory over a more talented team. But embarrassing blowouts like Wednesday's or the final three games of the 2014-15 season won't inspire continued confidence. This season can't end like 2011-12, Bruce Weber's final season, when Illinois couldn't handle the pressure of trying to save Weber's job and lost 12 of 14 -- sometimes in pitiful fashion. To Groce's credit, his Illinois teams have overcome early Big Ten deficits in each of his three seasons. Illinois started 2-7 in 2012-13 only to win six of their last nine to make the NCAA Tournament. In 2013-14, Illinois started Big Ten play 3-10 only to win five of their next six to come a game away from make the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Illinois started 0-2, only to win six of their next nine without Rayvonte Rice. It took a late-season collapse to take them out of the NCAA Tournament field. There is still a lot of basketball left to be played, and the schedule lightens in up a bit toward the end of the month. But the mid-season sample size (Illinois ranks 126th in the KenPom rankings -- the 2011-12 team finished the season ranked 82nd) says this team is headed toward an under-.500 record -- something that's happened just once in the last 17 seasons (2007-08).

The on-the-court results are affecting the off-the-court efforts. Recruiting seems to be at a standstill. This staff has made inroads in the ever-important Class of 2017. They are hosting Aussie big man Harry Froling for an official visit this weekend and are pursuing in-state big man Nick Rackocevic. But given the uncertainty of a new athletic director (and Groce likely missing his third straight NCAA Tournaments), recruits thought to have Illinois as thir leader seem willing to wait it out to see what happens, both during and after the season. It's a Catch-22 right now for Groce. Given the injuries, the best way for him to prove progress is to land recruits, but the lack of wins is hurting his chance at recruits. It's a big two months ahead for Groce and Illinois basketball. The longer he goes without wins (on and off the court), the more obserers will speculate about the futures of Archie MillerBryce Drew and other coaches.

The 2016-17 roster sure looks good. Nunn and Malcolm Hill return, Finke and Coleman-Lands -- and to a lesser extent D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan -- take the usually large freshman-to-sophomore leap, Black returns (hopefully healthy), Abrams likely returns, Kipper Nichols and Te'Jon Lucas add depth and much-needed skill sets (defense and point guard, respectively) and Thorne Jr. (if he sits out the season, though I think he will play this season -- and possibly soon) may return. Ideally, Groce -- who has three seasons left on his contract, a big detail considering Illinois just bought out athletic director Mike Thomas for $2.5 million -- would get another, make-or-break season to show what he can do with the program. But is that roster that strong to think it's capable of a top-five Big Ten, program-building season? Will holding on to Groce help or hinder the Illini's 2017 recruiting efforts? These are all the agonzizing questions facing the next athletic director, who should be in place by late January/early February.

After the 79-54 loss at MIchigan State, I asked Groce how he continues to progress his program despite the bad breaks. "We just keep working everyday," Groce said. "You got to control what you can control. Some things you can't control. You try to control the things you can. Tonight, I don't think we did that well. Sunday (against Ohio State), I thought we did. I thought we did it very well and had a chance to win on Sunday. Today, that just wasn't the case. We weren't nearly as sharp. ...I think our guys, they got the right heart. We got a great character group. But they got to learn how to balance that playing with emotion and not being too emotional. It's a good learning experience tonight for Khalid, a newcomer; (MIchael) Finke a freshman; Jordan, freshman; Williams, freshman; Jalen Coleman-Lands, freshman. It's good for those guys. And they'll learn from it because they care. But we've got to be better with our habits."

As for the current team, player leadership remains a problem. The guy screaming directions and encouraging his teammates in the huddle in East Lansing? Tracy Abrams, who hasn't played for Illinois the past two seasons. Hill doesn't seem to have the vocal leadership gene in him. He's more like former Illini Demetri McCamey: a really good player, a pretty hard worker but not a vocal leader. Nunn is a fiery player who can lead by example but isn't vocal either. Tate is a natural leader but lacks the talent to lead a basketball team. Groce's current mix needs a Sergio McClain or Lucas Johnson type. Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands may eventually grow into those leaders. Maybe Te'Jon Lucas will. But that doesn't help the 2015-16 team.

For what it's worth, I did like fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis' response to the adversity this team faces. "It's tough," Lewis said on Thursday. "But whatchu gonna do? Lay down? The season's still here. You got to figure a way to find through ...I think we have leaders. I think we have everything to do what we want to do. We just have to execute."

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