The 2015-16 Illinois basketball season ended a lot like it started: undermanned, defeated and in a strange place.
In the season-opening 93-82 loss to North Florida (22-11) in Springfield -- the Illini played their first five home games away from State Farm Center due to ongoing renovations -- the Illini were without starters Kendrick Nunn (thumb), Tracy Abrams (Achilles) and Leron Black (knee), and another starter, Jaylon Tate, dislocated his finger midway through the first half.
In Friday's season-ending 89-58 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament, the Illin were without starters Abrams, Black and Mike Thorne (knee) and looked like one of the worst teams in the Big Ten -- which they were.
The 2015-16 Illini (15-19, 6-12 Big Ten) never really stood much of a chance. And when they had a chance, they usually squandered it.
It was a lost season in what was supposed to be a rebound season for John Groce's program. Illinois had its sights set on proving that the March 2015 collapse was a fluke. In hindsight, the late-season collapse looks like a sign of larger issues: lack of talent at significant positions, lack of cohesion on the court and a lack of discipline off of it.
For the fifth time in eight years, Illinois won’t hear it’s name called on Selection Sunday. Illinois will miss its third straight tournament -- all under Groce's watch. That hasn’t happened at Illinois since 1980. In the last decade, Illinois has regressed from competing for top-five seeds to competing for bubble spots to competing for NIT bids.
So dire is Illinois basketball -- the most beloved Illinois sport -- that the usually-decrepit Illinois football program has stolen the limelight and the adulation of fans this March following the splash hire of Lovie Smith.
Groce was hired to replace a coach who didn’t make enough NCAA Tournaments. But he’s now missed as many at Illinois as Bruce Weber, who missed thee in his last five seasons with the Illini.
Groce coached someone else’s team his first two seasons. In his first season, Groce led Weber’s roster -- which lost 12 of its last 14 in 2011-12 -- to a Maui Invitational Championship and the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32. His second-season roster was terribly unbalanced due to Weber’s roster mismanagement, but somehow that team came within a shot of an NCAA Tournament bid. All in all, his first two years were a relative success.
But the last two seasons have been failures -- with his rosters. Of course, those rosters have suffered setbacks. Some self-inflicted (suspensions, dismissals). Some misfortune (a rash of injuries).
Regardless, Illinois has at least stagnated and more likely regressed these past few seasons. Groce is responsible for a roster that lacks a play-making point guard and a rim-protecting big. His recruits played poor defense early this season and poor offense late. In fairness, Groce never fully had the roster he wanted. Seven different Illini players missed a combined 94 games due to injury.
But what do we make of and what can the Illini take from a lost season?
Some fans want Groce gone. That’s not a ridiculous response. He's had too few on-the-court successes and too many off-the-court embarrassments, including Jaylon Tate’s Saturday morning arrest for alleged domestic abuse.
But Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman wants Groce back. He gave Groce a vote of confidence early in his first official day on the job (March 5) -- also not a ridiculous response -- and hasn't budged from that. Groce has had as much, if not more, misfortune than any coach in the country. He also has some momentum in recruiting that points toward a potential program-changing recruiting class in 2017.
Groce needed a backer. Whitman -- hired in mid-February to replace the man who hired Groce, dismissed AD Mike Thomas -- is a big one.
“Without leadership, sometimes your ship can be rudderless,” Groce said. “There for a while -- certainly, that’s not a knock on anyone while we were in waiting -- but once we made that decision, I think that gave us some direction. There’s no question, you can feel it. The passion, the positive, the support, the confidence, thinking about solutions -- how do we get better? I’m very excited about that.
“We’re excited to keep working to move this thing forward. Obviously, he’s going to be a huge part of that.”
Whitman and Groce seem to have a lot in common, more than their shared shaved hairstyle. The Gen Xers speak the same language, both quoting Jon Gordon's "The Energy Bus" during press conferences. Both are highly educated, highly calculated and highly passionate.
“I think the thing that comes to me (about Whitman) are two things: passion and confidence," Groce said. "I think the passion is very obvious. I love that. He’s obviously passionate about this place in a very deep part in his heart because he’s walked in the shoes these guys have on our campus. Then his confidence. His support for me -- which to be honest with you has been from the jump. I know publicly (it was recently), but he’s been unbelievable with that."
But that support comes with expectations. Groce can't survive another year without producing wins and recruits. What is the correct combination of those variables that leads to a winning equation for Groce? Only Whitman knows.
Lessons from a lost season
With Groce back for another season, the hope is that 2015-16 plays some purpose. But what?
Several young Illini were thrown into a fight-or-flight scenario. The Illini mostly showed fight even if they lost most of their battles to bigger, stronger predators.
Jalen Coleman-Lands already proved he’s one of the Big Ten’s best shooters, sinking 87 threes (fourth most of any Illini in a single season). He became the first Illini freshman to average double-digit points (10.3) since D.J. Richardson (2009-10) and greatly improved his ballhandling and defense as the season progressed. Classmate D.J. Williams also showed some flashes of athleticism, skill and energy.
Michael Finke was a non-conference breakout star before Big Ten length, strength and scouting gave him a big dose of reality. But he showed resolve by bouncing back in the first two games of the Big Ten Tournament. His future remains bright.
Most had given up on junior center Maverick Morgan midway through the season. But he blossomed into a solid, serviceable Big Ten big man, averaging 11.5 points and 5.4 rebounds over his last 15 games.
All those young players had early on-the-job training. Now they must get stronger and better.
“In some ways, the guys in here got some more opportunities here earlier and got thrown into the fire a little bit and had to figure it out,” Groce said. “I think it’s made each of these guys better, and I think it’s going to make our program better. It’s not fun going through some of it, but I think at the end of the day the outcome of that will be a positive thing. I tell them, ‘The struggle will make us stronger.’”
“There was a point in time where I was trying to force the issue,” Nunn said.” We were losing a lot when I was forcing it. The percentages show that. The coaches helped me out. They told me just to be patient and play as a team. Just play the right way and the game will come to you.”
HIll said: “I just learned that there’s more to the game than how many points you score and stuff like that. It’s all about the little things. The little things are very important because with all the injuries we had, I had to do some of the little things and it made a huge difference in a lot of the games.”
Hopefully Groce and his staff learned a lot too. Groce talked often about not making excuses before talking about all the team's excuses. Even though his team had a chance to win several more games, it couldn't make winning plays at the end of games. He has punished players for off-the-court incidents, yet his team continues to make poor decisions off the court.
Everyone involved has an offseason to reflect and grow. If they don't, the 2015-16 season will have proved pointless.
Make or break year
Whitman said he's not afraid to articulate his expectations to coaches. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Whitman's 2016-17 season expectation for Groce -- who has three seasons left on his contract -- does not include an NCAA Tournament bid. Dance next March or I'll find someone who will.
Hopefully, Groce finally gets a healthy roster. It should be his deepest and most talented -- but we said that the past two seasons too before injuries and suspensions robbed the Illini of its perceived depth.
Hill and Nunn will provide the Illini with one of the best senior duos in the Big Ten, but that duo has not yet made an NCAA Tournament. It's winning time and legacy-leaving time for the seniors.
“First two years I think we were a game away and this year we had a tough year, but I’m not going to be sad about it," Hill said. "That’s not something I’m going to cry about it and think about it negatively. We just got to take that drive and hunger and move it to next year.”
Said Nunn: “It’s a big offseason for us. We got a lot of guys coming back. If we stay healthy and come together as a team, I think we’ll have a hell of a team."
Illinois also could have one of the most talented sophomore classes in the conference: Coleman-Lands, Finke, Williams, Aaron Jordan and Leron Black -- if Black is brought back. Black has a pre-trial hearing on April 19 for a felony charge of aggravated assault and currently is suspended from team activities.
Regardless of Tate's future -- he likely wouldn't have played much of a role next season anyway -- the team will receive a needed point guard boost with the return of Abrams and arrival of four-star point guard Te'Jon Lucas. But both are coming off serious injures : Abrams, an Achilles tear and before that a torn ACL; Lucas, a fractured foot. Also, freshman transfer Kipper Nichols should give Illinois a boost of defense and athleticism when he earns eligibility after the first semester.
The Illini also could add one or two (depending on Tate's future) more players, possibly fifth-year transfers or high school prospects.
"The next season, we have a lot of barriers to cross before I know fully what that is going to look like," Groce said.
Some Big Ten teams will take hits. Iowa loses most of its top contributors and Maryland's starting five may all go pro. Michigan State loses its stars but replaces them with its most talented recruiting class ever. And while Indiana and Purdue lose their best players, Yogi Ferrell and A.J. Hammons respectively, both return a lot of talent, as does Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. And Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska hope to build on minor gains this season, while Minnesota adds more Big Ten-worthy talents.
The path to 2016-17 success for Illinois has plenty of potential potholes. After a lost last year, Groce will try to avoid both the unlucky and self-inflicted setbacks. If he can't, he likely won't get another chance.
A year from now, Illinois fans should be talking about NCAA Tournament seeding. If they aren't, they should be talking about a coaching change after another lost season.
“We want to play in (the NCAA Tournament) every year. I’ve told you that before," Groce said. "Those guys will tell you that as well. You got to control what you can control. ...Getting caught up in one possession at a time, one day at a time, just controlling what we can control. There’s some things you can’t control, like Mike’s knee. You can’t control that. So for us, I think it’s more about building on it, getting better, getting stronger, executing better. I think the guys understand how important it is to execute the little things better and well. I think we’ll be better at those things. Then we’ll kind of let the rest of it take care of itself. If you start forecasting what things will look like a year from now, 10 days from now, you could drive yourself nuts. I’m not going to do that.”