USA Today // Rick Osentowski

Werner: Groce's fifth year showing similarities to Weber's final season

A lifeless Illini basketball team seems destined to provide another long, painful end to a coaching tenure

Welcome to 13th place in the Big Ten, Illinois basketball.

Yes, this is how far the once-prideful Illinois basketball program has fallen. 

John Groce's team currently is the second worst team in the Big Ten, and after Saturday's 66-57 loss at Michigan, Illinois (12-8, 2-5 Big Ten) holds just a one-game lead over league doormat Rutgers. And the Scarlet Knights (12-8, 1-6 Big Ten) surely will be licking their chops for the conference regular-season finale in Piscataway on March 4.

Illini fans probably wish they could just hit the "skip-ahead" button and fast-forward to that date. "Get this over with." Unmercifully, there are 11 regular-season games remaining and one Big Ten Tournament game. This could look like a predator just toying with its prey.

In many ways, this season is starting to mirror the 2011-12 season, Bruce Weber's last at Illinois. The Illini lost 12 of 14 games that year, a long, painful collapse leading to Weber's deserved firing.

But most forget that even that Illini team was pretty good at one point. It started the season 15-3, including 4-1 in the Big Ten, and was ranked (No. 22) following Brandon Paul's 43-point effort and a home upset of Jared Sullinger and No. 5 Ohio State. Illinois then lost its next three before showing signs of life in another big home upset of No. 10 Michigan State. But the Brandon-Paul and Meyers Leonard-led Illini folded under the pressure of saving Weber's job -- and the lack of support from first-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. But even that team only lost one game by more than 20 points, an embarrassing loss at Nebraska.

We haven't yet seen Malcolm Hill crying on the bench (like Leonard in 2012) this season, but Groce's fifth-year team -- a roster with no injuries, a roster he recruited -- could be more tear-inducing than Weber's final team. These Illini surely are showing less pride and fight. They surely are showing worse chemistry and worse basketball IQ.

But for most fans, 2012 seemed more sad than this one, which just fuels justifiable anger.

Groce admitted earlier this week he has concerns about both his team's effort and execution. Uh, yeah. His team has a lot of problems.

The Illini are one of the Big Ten's worst offensive teams. It scored just 57 points against Michigan, a team  that had allowed 78.3 points per game during the first six conference games. And the Illini defense may have just surpassed Michigan's as the worst in the Big Ten.

If basketball teams had homecoming, Illinois would be the preferred opponent. Illinois has been a get-right opponent on the road, losing its first four Big Ten road games by an average of 17.8 points. And a late Illinois run at Michigan makes that stat look a lot better. Illinois only lost 66-57, but it trailed 60-39 with under six minutes left.

Barring an epic epiphany -- Wait! We should play defense?!  -- Groce looks destined to finish in the bottom three of the Big Ten for a second straight season. Illinois is well on its way to missing its fourth straight NCAA Tournament -- something that hasn't been done since 1980.

The man Groce replaced was appropriately fired -- and Weber never missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and his worst Big Ten finishes were ninth in an 11-team league (both in 2011-12 and 2007-08).

It's simple, Groce's record -- 89-69 overall, 31-48 Big Ten, 11-29 on the road during conference play -- is worthy of a pink slip. But his team's lack of competitiveness is a flat-out embarrassment, as senior center Maverick Morgan said after Tuesday's 91-68 loss at Purdue.

The schedule eases up a bit, but that's not saying much for the Big Ten's worst teams. KenPom favors the Illini in just four of their remaining 11 games -- and who's going to put money on them at this point?

Groce's team has not improved throughout the season -- nor throughout his tenure. No recruiting class can provide enough of a distraction to overlook that Illinois looks like the most poorly-coached team in the conference.

Groce -- whose scatter-brained rotations resemble someone throwing darts at the wall, hoping one sticks, often points out the problems: defense, ball movement, players making plays, individuals must step up, energy from the start of road games. But nothing has been fixed. That points to either poor coaching or players not responding to coaching. Either or both are alarming issues for a hot-seat coach 20 games into a make-or-break season.

Groce is never short on energy or words. What he lacks though is most important: wins.

Due to Groce's failures -- he's had more than any Illini coach in modern history -- athletic director Josh Whitman likely will have an easy decision at the end of the season.

But the end of the season seems torturously far away.


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