One day of positivity apparently was too much for Illinois athletics. New Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman gave the Illini fan base a much-needed sense of hope after he slayed his introductory press conference. But Leron Black quickly brought back the all-too-familiar feeling of gloom and doom. Black was arrested late Thursday night for a charge of aggravated assault after allegedly threatening an Urbana nightclub bouncer with a knife. He will be arraigned in a Champaign court on Friday afternoon. I hope you enjoyed Thursday, Illini fans!
Josh Whitman faces a big challenge immediately. He was scheduled to meet with Illini basketball coach John Groce this weekend to discuss his program and what he needs to be successful in the future. Will Whitman dictate what Groce should do? Will this cloud any thoughts Whitman has about Groce? Given his buyout of more than $1.5 million and the excuse of unprecedented injuries, many assumed Groce would get a fifth year. Despite those injuries and a poor inherited roster that hurt his tournament chances in 2014, Groce just doesn't have enough wins. Now, he's had too many off-the-court issues. Whitman will hear from donors who are not only sick of losing but sick of the off-the-court embarrassments. Black made the poor decision. But his decision is a poor reflection on his coach -- especially with a new boss in town -- his teammates, his program and his university, as well.
Illinois lacks leadership at some level(s). Groce has suspended players who have broken rules, but they don't seem to get the message. Darius Paul had been suspended from team activities multiple times for violations of team rules before his 2014 arrest for underage drinking and resisting arrest. He then committed another crime during the team's foreign trip last summer, getting arrested for vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest -- leading to him getting kicked off the team. Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice were suspended multiple games for a violation of team rules during a team road trip to Minnesota. At a smaller level, Kendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands were suspended for short periods during games this year for violations of team rules. Of course, 18- to- 23-year-olds, even good ones, tend to make bad decisions. But the quantity is troubling for Illinois basketball, a roster of 13, which has had more issues off the court the past few seasons han Illinois football, a roster of 85. Suspensions show Groce is trying to hold his players accountable, but they aren't listening. That's an issue for Groce. And players don't seem to be holding their teammates accountable either. That shows on and off the court.
"Idle minds are the devil's workshop." Most of Groce's troublemakers made their trouble while inactive. Paul was arrested in 2014 during his NCAA-mandated sit-out year after transferring. He was arrested in 2015 while nursing a shoulder injury. Rice and Cosby were suspended while both sat out due to injuries. Black committed his alleged crime while sitting out with a knee injury (he's played just seven games this season). The staff cannot monitor their players 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But many coaches have told me that they are most nervous when their players are idle. Their minds and rested bodies are too active.
Leron Black's future at Illinois appears murky. Unlike Darius Paul, this is Black's first big mistake at Illinois -- at least known publicly. But an allegation of wielding and threatening someone with a knife is a serious one. Groce gave Paul a second chance (arguably a third or fourth). Will he give Black a second chance? Black shares a tight bond with Black, bonding over faith. But Groce may feel he needs to make a statement to his team, the fans and his new boss. Black, who likely would receive a medical redshirt after playing just seven games this season, is an important player for the future. Groce said Black, a former top-50 recruit and an strong rebounder, epitomized what he wanted the team's identity to be: gritty and tough -- two words Whitman used on Thursday to describe the Illini identity he wants to build, as well. But his future possible impact on the team should not impact any decision made on his future. The culture and accountability pieces are more important.