USA Today // Vincent Carchietta

Werner's Whits: It's still November, but it's already danger time for John Groce's Illini

After an 0-3 week in November, Illini hoops and coach John Groce already are in precarious positions

John Groce said he "challenged some guys, called some guys out" following Thursday's 89-57 blowout loss to West Virginia. On Friday, he said he was "proud of the way his guys responded." His team had just lost 72-61 to No. 25 Florida State -- another potentially "good win" in March wasted away. In Year Five with a veteran, deep team, expectations should be higher.

Groce, though, is focused on his team's effort and energy. Admittedly, that was fine for the first 30 minutes. Illinois played great half-court defense, controlled the glass against a huge team and created a lot of open shots. They just didn't make enough of the shots. Still, Illinois held a 44-42 lead with 11:56 remaining. Malcolm Hill then picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench, and the team folded. Florida State went on a 23-7 run to give Illinois an 0-3 result during a crucial week. Nothing's written in November, but this story better have a heck of a finish if this team wants it to end in an NCAA Tournament.

I thought Illinois could only afford to lose three games during the nonconference and feel OK about making an NCAA Tournament. With NC State coming to town Tuesday, Illinois may have four losses before the end of November. And then VCU looms on Saturday at a neutral site (Miami). Illinois has no margin for error now. But fans have no confidence that they can win games even against teams like Missouri, not to mention BYU. Yes, it is still early. And there is plenty of time for a turnaround. That just doesn't look likely based on the eye test through seven regular season games and two exhibitions.

In Year Five, execution -- and results -- are the key. And for the last four years, execution has been lacking. With five seniors and two third-year sophomores, there simply are no excuses for failing so terribly against a West Virginia press Groce said the team had been working on since August. There are no excuses for the Illini's second three-game nonconference losing streak since 1993 (the Illini lost three nonconference games in a row in 2009-10, though a Northwestern overtime win came between the second and third losses). But Groce said, "I loved the vibe of our team." Again, expectations should be higher. I understand positivity, but it seems past time for silver linings in losses -- especially with a veteran team.

Bruce Weber deserved most of the criticism he received. He took over an Illinois program at its peak. He helped them reach the program's peak (a 2005 national championship appearance) in the short term, but he also managed the steep fall to what we perceived was its low point, missing three out of five NCAA Tournaments. But at least you knew Weber's teams had an identity. Even if the Illini played ugly offense -- because Weber couldn't recruit enough guards who could run his motion offense -- they almost always forced other teams to play ugly offense, because they always defended.

I'm still searching for what Groce's program's identity is. He hasn't recruited the point guards to execute his ball-screen offense. Te'Jon Lucas has started to show he's capable but has struggled to earn playing time over Groce's first (and besides Lucas his only other) point guard recruit, Jaylon Tate, who has six assists to five turnovers the last two games. The two teams full of his recruits -- last year and this year -- haven't defend well. They don't consistently rebound well or consistently take care of the ball well. It'd be nice to watch Illinois and say, "Well, I know they'll do (this) well tonight." This team has skilled passers and shooters, but they don't even do those things consistently (11 assists on 19 made field goals on Friday).

So D.J. Williams' mother tweeted out criticism of Groce's non-use of her son on Friday. We've already reached that point of the season, huh? Williams is inconsistent, but he's also one of the team's longest and best athletes. Groce said after the game that Lucas "earned" playing time and that it was a "better game" for Aaron Jordaover Williams. "We made the decision to play those guys a little bit more today," Groce said.

Is it already time to send some messages with the bench? The issue when you get a coach on the hot seat is that he often sides with the player he trusts in that singular game rather than the player(s) who can most help them in the long run of a season.

If Mav Morgan isn't going to play defense, he better play better offense. After scoring 42 points over the first three games, Morgan has just 14 points over the last four games -- and just eight rebounds over 76 minutes in those four games.

Jalen Coleman-Lands left his shot in Champaign. The sharpshooting sophomore went 0-for-8 from three in Brooklyn. He's also 1-for-11 from two this season, and he's shot just five free-throw attempts. Yes, Illinois misses Kendrick Nunn.

Searching for positives? Hill (18 points on 6-for-13 shooting) burst out of his shooting slump. He had made 3-for-25 shots from the second half of Winthrop through most of the first half on Friday, but he sunk five of his last six shots on Friday. He also added eight rebounds. But his foul trouble hurt, and his late-game Benny Hill dribbling clinic was pretty embarrassing. Also, Leron Black (15 points, 11 rebounds) is proving his value. The sophomore found his sea legs in Brooklyn with 21 points and 20 rebounds in two games. Also, Lucas continues to shine -- when he receives playing time. The Tate story was cute while it lasted, but he is exposed by good teams who actually scout Illinois. Lucas (105.4 offensive efficiency rating) simply is a better player than Tate (93.2 ORtg). He can actually score and he spurs the Illini's best ball movement. 

"The two bright spots as we move forward are probably Black and Lucas," Groce said. "I thought that Black is starting to get his feet under him a bit. He had a good week. We're going to certainly need him. He's a big part of what we do moving forward. ...Then Lucas, yesterday I threw him in there. When you're a freshman and thrown in to play against that pressure, I thought he earned an opportunity to play a little bit earlier today with the way he's been playing. He's been getting in better shape coming off that injury. He's been able to play harder, longer. He understands what he's doing more. Then today again he took advantage of the time he had. I thought he played really, really well, and I think that bodes well not only for him but for us moving forward."

There is plenty of time left (at least 25 games) for a turnaround, but it's already danger time for John Groce and the Illini's 2016-17 season.


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