Unlike many bemoaning on social media, the flip of the calendar from 2015 to 2016 actually helped Illinois athletics. Last year was a slightly brighter year than its predecessor, one of the darkest in recent memory for the Illini. But the Illini must continue to improve themselves for 2017 to be brighter and healthier. Here are some suggested resolutions for some key Illini figures.
John Groce: Just win, baby. No more excuses. No more distractions. It's put up or shut up time for the fifth-year Illini basketball coach. This team has no injuries. It's a veteran group. It's a roster Groce recruited (outside of Tracy Abrams, whom he's lucky to have). Yet, it still plays like a much greener team. At times, it looks like an NCAA Tournament team (VCU, NC State). Other times, it looks like one of the Big Ten's worst (Winthrop, Maryland, etc.). It showcases the inconsistencies of a poorly coached team that lacks on-the-court discipline -- and the off-the-court issues from last spring suggest it has lacked some off-court discipline too. Most fans have made up their minds. And who can blame them? There is a real possibility of Illinois missing a fourth straight NCAA Tournament, which hasn't been done since 1980. But given that the Illini have at least a solid resume right now, there are plenty of opportunities to turn this season around. It's on Groce to right the ship -- or he should go down with it. Sure, he's had bad luck during his tenure. Sure, he has an exciting recruiting class coming in. But if Illinois has another inexcusably subpar season, there's little confidence that Groce is the man to lead that talent to eventual success. So ... simply ... win. Take at least a small step in the right direction.
- Also for Groce: Don't die on your sword with Jaylon Tate and don't get testy with fair questions from reporters. Neither has a high upside. Oh, and offer Mark Smith -- and land Ayo Dosunmu. That's a lot, but a lot must be done.
Josh Whitman: Continue to practice what you preach. Whitman struck almost all the right tones in his first year as Illinois athletics director. He infused excitement into the football program with the bold, swift hire of Lovie Smith. The announcement of a new Illini athletics hall of fame salutes the past while the announcement of a $132 million renovation of the south end of Memorial Stadium builds toward the future. Whitman also has given the program renewed hope and confidence, especially with his "We Will Win" mantra. Whitman holds his department to a high standard. His basketball programs though -- led by two fifth-year coaches hired by his predecessor -- aren't meeting expectations. Whitman must employ coaches who can better those situations, whether that means retaining the current coaches or finding better ones.
Lovie Smith: Keep winning in Chicago and St. Louis. Tim Beckman spoke about winning recruitments in "Illini Nation," the area within a six-hour radius of Champaign. But he never found footing in the most important, most fertile areas in that footprint. Most of the current roster hails from Ohio and Florida, and while those areas are rich with talent, Illinois mostly fed on the leftovers. Meanwhile, too much in-state talent (especially in Chicagoland) and St. Louis area talent went elsewhere. Smith has changed that. He's on the verge of adding double-digit in-state commits, which Illinois hasn't done since 2008. And it's not just quantity, Illinois is landing quality. Illinois, which has just three St. Louis area players currently on its roster, but Smith is gaining traction in St. Louis with two commitments from St. Louis players already and the opportunity to land a few more from East St. Louis. The Class of 2018 talent in Chicago is strong, especially if still you consider former Chicago Mt. Carmel and now IMG Academy standouts Verdis Brown and Houston Griffith as in-state talents. The Class of 2018 talent in St. Louis is even stronger, with the Illini in on Trevor Trout, Ronnie Perkins, Kamryn Babb, Cameron Brown, Kaleb Eleby and more. With Lovie's respected and famous name, Illinois has the opportunity to get a great share of talent from both cities. If he does, Illinois could truly contend in the Big Ten West within a few years.
Garrick McGee: Entertain us. Deon Thomas recently told me in reference to talent, "Have you ever seen a donkey win the Kentucky Derby?" Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee certainly didn't have the talent to truly compete in the Big Ten. But McGee will have an intriguing crop of newcomers and returners. The quarterback position receives a huge boost of athleticism with JuCo transfer Dwayne Lawson, returning junior Chayce Crouch and freshman Cam Thomas. The running back group is deep and versatile with returners Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin and Ke'Shawn Vaughn and incoming freshmen Ra'Von Bonner and Mike Epstein. The receiver group could be one of the more talented groups in the Big Ten if Mike Dudek returns to even 80 percent of his 2014 self. Malik Turner was one of the more productive receivers in the Big Ten last season and now will be flanked by a talented group of incoming freshmen, including likely Day One starter Ricky Smalling and Florida speedster Carmoni Green. Tight end and offensive line have huge question marks, but there are even bigger questions on defense. There won't be a lot of pressure on Illinois to win games next season, but it'd at least be nice to see McGee open up this offense and show off his new more athletic, faster and more dangerous weapons. After watching one of the nation's worst offenses last season, a little entertainment would at least provide some excitement and an identity for the future.
Chayce Crouch: Keep doing what you do. Illini Inquirer often has compared the Illini rising junior quarterback to former Northern Illinois standout Jordan Lynch. Both had arm strength limitations, but both played with such physicality and competitive fire. Crouch will compete for the starting job with Lawson, who has the advantage in every physical category. But Crouch, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, still can be the best option. He knows the scheme. He has the respect of his coaches and teammates. The presence of Lawson could make him think he needs to do more to win the job. But he just needs to be himself. That may be enough to ignite the Illini offense.
Mike Dudek: No spring ball. The Illini receiver is already a senior in college academically. But he still could enter the 2017 season as a sophomore following two lost seasons to torn ACLs -- both suffered during the spring. Dudek is a competitor and wants to get back to the field. But he also doesn't help the team win games by playing spring ball. As tough as it is, Dudek should take it slow in his second attempt at a return to the field. See you in the fall, Mike.
Malcolm Hill: Lead. The Illini senior guard gets the most of his talent. He's one of the most skilled and gifted scorers (18.6 points) in the country, and he also leads the team in rebounding (6.4) and is third in assists (2.2). He's on pace to finish among the program's top-four career scorers. But he's also on pace to finish his career with zero NCAA Tournament appearances. Hill has never been the most vocal player, and the program's recent failures certainly aren't all on him. But he must lift his teammates more. He must push them to do more. He must hold them accountable when they do wrong. That's a lot to ask of a player, but great, winning players are known for having these traits.
Maverick Morgan: Consistently bring intensity. The Illini senior center was headed toward a disappointing individual career before he flipped a switch last January. He's since turned into one of the more skilled offensive big men in the Big Ten. But he still is far too inconsistent with his toughness and energy. He said last month that it is about "mindset" with him. Well, his team needs him to bring that tough mindset every game to succeed in the Big Ten.
Illini basketball sophomores: Step up. While a lot of focus is on the head coach and the backup point guard, the lack of production from the Illini sophomores is alarming. Leron Black had a great stretch but has played three straight poor games. Jalen Coleman-Lands (89.1 ORtg, 35.2 percent FG) and Michael Finke (97.1 ORtg) each have regressed in their second seasons, while D.J. Williams (2.9 ppg) and Aaron Jordan (1.8 ppg) haven't added much off the bench. That class not only is a big part of the Illini's present but also a huge part of the future. These sophomores are no longer "young players." It's time to perform like veterans.