Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Piper: Awkward state of affairs for Illini hoops

Illini hoops is in an awkward position with seven Big Ten games left on the schedule and the Mr. Basketball leader still uncommitted.

There's really no other way to say it, Illinois basketball is in an extremely awkward stage right now.

It's early February. There's seven Big Ten games left. The Illini were expected to be climbing their way to the NCAA tournament at this time. Or at least, giving themselves a shot.

But instead, we're putting the ladder away and taking the shovel out. This team looks to be all but buried. This coach looks to be all but buried. And everybody knows it.

March will be a formality. Last Saturday was likely the final nail. The time between the two will be the awkward wait. Bluntly put: The itinerary is currently calling for a five-week drive to the cemetery to lay this era of basketball to rest.

Illinois is 13-11. They're 3-8 in the Big Ten. They've lost six of their last seven games. This is Year Five of John Groce's tenure, and what will be the fourth straight season without a tournament berth. His predecessor, Bruce Weber, never missed it twice in a row.

And with a chance to inhale a faint breath of hope on Saturday, the Illini choked. A sellout crowd -- the first since the State Farm Center renovations -- watched Minnesota end a five-game slide with Illinois sliding comfortably into 13th place in the Big Ten.

A large portion of fans could stand the awkwardness, as they were drawn out to see the Chicago Cubs World Series trophy. That's quite an attraction to pair with a program that has only been winning trophies for beating Missouri.

More pertinently awkward was the fact that five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon -- arguably the best signed hoops recruit since Dee Brown -- was in the house with his family. And Tilmon was sitting next to Edwardsville rising star Mark Smith -- the hottest name and biggest target left in the state -- who was there with his family.

Those are two big-time players. Two important pieces when you're talking about the future talent Illinois needs for a resurgence in years to come. But they're left to wade in the awkwardness too.

Tilmon is married to it -- for now. His letter of intent is binding, but as soon as Groce would get fired, he could request his release. It's standard procedure that those are granted without much trouble.

If assistant coach Jamall Walker is kept, the Tilmons won't bat an eye. Otherwise, you're potentially reopening the door that brought some wild winds to the situation back in November before the ink was dry. It was a storm that Illinois wasn't always sure to survive.

Then, you have Smith. The player who looks to be Mr. Basketball in your state right now. He really likes Illinois. He's liked Illinois for a long time. He was thrilled just to get an invite to the Braggin' Rights game as a recruiting guest back in December.

His stock has been soaring since then. Indiana was recently added to the offer list. Kansas came to see him. Duke and North Carolina have called. There's plenty of others. And even with the Illinois program loaded with problems and uncertainty, Smith chose to come on another visit to Champaign.

That doesn't just happen for no reason. He hasn't visited any other campuses during the season. Yes, Northwestern has done really well and they're a legit threat. Yes, Smith is enjoying the attention from big-time programs. But there's a pull to the home-state school. A big one.

However, Smith is the type of recruit who prioritizes a relationship with the head coach during his recruitment. Groce visited him last Wednesday, and Smith talked about their relationship on Friday.

“I’m building a good relationship with all the coaches, especially Coach Groce. That’s one of the most important things to me in a school: The relationship with the head coach," Smith said after his win at East St. Louis. "Coach Groce and I, we talk almost every day. He sent me a text before this game saying, 'good luck tonight, I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow'."

A week before that, a source close to Smith told IlliniInquirer.com that they were becoming skeptical about Illinois because of the lack of involvement by Groce. And now, Groce is involved. But when Smith comes around to make a decision, Groce probably isn't the guy at Illinois anymore. Awkward.

Illinois still has to recruit him, though. Tilmon is going to do his part, and that's attractive for Smith. And the program itself will be a sell that holds steady. Of course, it could have been so much easier if this season was on track with where it was projected to be. And that's not touching the realm of 'special' that Groce described at the season's outset.

Instead, it's an odd scene. And then you have the fact that a coach like Tracy Webster was watching Smith on Friday night in East St. Louis. The former Illini assistant operates under Cuonzo Martin at Cal -- a name that hasn't been bashfully inserted into the conversation in Illini nation. Is Smith going to seriously consider Cal? Probably not. But... (Fill in the blank).

Smith and his dad met privately with Whitman on Saturday before the game. Surely, that was partly involved in the motivation to make the trip. Did the Smith family ask Whitman about Groce's future beyond this season? Or did they have a closed-door meeting to talk about good restaurants in Champaign? You make the call.

Whitman is a smart dude. He knows his job description. Be supportive with your guy right now. Do what's necessary to be ready for the potential next move. He's checking both of those boxes. But it's a hard -- and awkward -- balance.

And Whitman has been careful and methodical about his public position on the basketball program. When Illinois beat Iowa at home, he called it a 'big win for the boys' on Twitter. But one day after Illinois lost another laugher on the road at Michigan to make it three straight defeats, Whitman tweeted that he was in Naples, Fla. talking with Illini supporters.

Anyone know which big Illini donor lives in Naples? He sat courtside at a game last month. He owns an NFL team.

But other than that, you don't hear or see much projected out to the public by the AD. Whitman was asked by a local television station to go live on-air at the football Signing Day event last week. 'We're just talking football, right?'

That day was a nice distraction for the fan base. But on all other days, it's not hard to find out what Illini fans, media, etc. are talking about. Writing about. Tweeting about. Texting about.

A prominent alum of the program had things to say last week. He talked about the mess. The sad decline from where the program once was and should be.

He talked about how some of his former teammates view the situation. Some of the guys that had their jerseys up in the rafters too.

"They don't even pay attention," he said. "That's a problem."

One of Groce's former players was at the game on Saturday. And he was uncomfortably at a loss for an explanation for this season's downfall.

That's the way the rest of this season is going to be. Uncomfortable. Uneasy. Awkward.

That's how it is for a certain top-100 point guard down in Florida, who wants nothing more than for Groce to stay. But the reality of the situation makes that more and more difficult to foresee.

At this point on the calendar in Weber's final season, Illinois was 16-7 and 5-5 in Big Ten play. The Illini were coming off a home loss to Northwestern. Restlessness was surely there. Frustration was starting to boil.

But not this level of awkwardness, or seeming inevitability. Not just yet. But here we are.


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