Illinois basketball has issues. Coach John Groce and athletics director Josh Whitman admitted as much on Thursday night, saying in a statement that there has been "a series of conduct issues involving our men’s basketball team."
Fact: Kendrick Nunn's Thursday arrest for a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery is the third arrest for an allegation of a violent crime. Fact: Nunn's arrest is the second domestic battery charge in five days, following Jaylon Tate's arrest on Saturday morning. Leron Black was arrested for aggravated assault for allegedly pulling a knife on a bouncer at a campus nightclub. Fact: Nunn's arrest is the fourth Illini basketball arrest in eight months, following Darius Paul's overseas arrest for vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest. It was Paul's second arrest in a year and a half. He was arrested for underage drinking and resisting arrest in Champaign during the spring of 2014.
Fact: we don't know all the facts yet. Social media decided Tate's guilt on Saturday, and in reaction, Groce's fate as well. The coach's approval rating already was low after the Illini missed their third straight NCAA Tournament under his watch. But Tate's lawyer claims that Tate's accuser recanted her story on Saturday, allegedly e-mailing him that Tate was not present when she suffered the bruises to her face and that she gave herself the injuries. My initial reaction to the news of Nunn's arrest was likely similar to most fans. "This is embarrassing for the program. Groce may pay for this one." But like I said after Tate's arrest, as damning as the report and charge seem, I think we must wait on the facts before completely judging Nunn and, thus, Groce. Arrests do not equal guilt. I repeat -- ARRESTS DO NOT EQUAL GUILT. Now, do I suspect the three Illini awaiting trial are all innocent? The odds certainly aren't in their favor. But I don't know that they're guilty yet. Whitman is a lawyer. Facts are important to him. They should be. And they should be to all of us. But Groce at worst has a perception problem. That's now a Whitman problem that he must address in some way.
As we wait for the facts, it absolutely is fair to question the discipline of this program. Groce has punished players for incidents. Darius Paul was suspended a year for his first arrest (he also failed two team drug tests). Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were suspended three games in the middle of the 2014-15 season for a violation of team rules. Jalen Coleman-Lands and Nunn didn't start a game each this season due to a minor violation of team rules (possibly as small of an infraction as tardiness for practice, but still a lack of discipline). Paul was dismissed for his second arrest. Now, Groce has witnessed three players arrested for violent charges in four weeks. Groce spoke to his team following Tate's arrest, driving home the need for discipline. And still Nunn, Tate's roommate and former high school teammate, is alleged of the same crime just three days later. Whether Groce is trying to send a message, his players simply aren't getting the message. That really reflects poorly on Groce. Are the Illini players putting themselves in bad situations? Paul did (Groce probably shouldn't have brought him back following three transgressions but he trusted the Paul family -- Darius' brother Brandon was a star at Illinois -- and he needed a post player). Black did by carrying a knife on him. We don't know all the facts on Tate, but his lawyer seems to think they have a strong case that Tate wasn't anywhere near the crime. We await details on Nunn. But these arrests provide the perception that Groce, who hasn't recruited enough difference-making players and hasn't won enough games, also is overseeing an undisciplined culture. Is that enough to make a change? I would've thought so when Whitman took over earlier this month. But on his first official day on the job, Whitman gave Groce a vote of confidence for the following year. In my opinion, Whitman probably would need guilt in these off-the-court incidents to recant that strong support.
If the allegations against Nunn are true, he unquestionably must be kicked off the team. Illinois must have zero tolerance for domestic violence. If the allegations are true, Whitman must be consider firing Groce. Even if Tate is cleared and Black pleads down to a misdemeanor charge, Whitman must fire Groce if Nunn struck a woman. That'd be an easy decision. Illinois basketball cannot continue with a coach who cannot -- as written in the Groce and Whitman joint statement -- "ensure that our men’s basketball team is representative of the high ideals that we uphold in Illinois Athletics." Would Illinois have enough money following Whitman's splurge for Lovie Smith to make the necessary investment into Illinois basketball? I don't know. But I don't think it'd matter. It couldn't afford to continue with a coach with that many stains.
Mike Thomas left Whitman a mess. Way bigger than the clutter Ron Guenther left Whitman. Each of Thomas' three major hires has been mired in scandal. Seven former women's basketball players accused coach Matt Bollant of abuse and racism, charges found unsubstantiated by an expensive independent investigation. Tim Beckman was dismissed last August following an independent investigation into allegations of player abuse and medical misconduct. Now, Groce's tenure looks tenuous following all the off-the-court incidents. All the while, Bollant has a 19-54 (.260) Big Ten record. Beckman had a 4-20 conference record (.166), and the interim coach who replaced him (Bill Cubit) went 2-6 (.250) in the Big Ten. Groce has a 29-43 (.403) conference record. Whitman has proven he's not afraid to tackle Illinois' issues and use a scalpel rather than a Band-Aid. His surgical procedure on Illinois is just beginning.