I'll be frank. I was one of those who thought John Groce was going to be successful at Illinois.
I liked his Big Ten background. I liked that he led Ohio to NCAA Tournaments (yes, I now know that conference record should have looked more foreboding). I liked his ability to connect in recruiting and get Illinois into some big battles for top talent.
I also just like John, the man. He is energy personified. He's perpetually positive in a world that tends to flock toward the negative. He gave it his all every day he was the Illini coach. He's a fighter. He's a faithful family man.
I enjoyed my professional relationship with John. He kept most media at a distance -- shutting us out of practice, as many coaches do these days -- though he certainly would small talk. Ours most recently centered around his baby girl, Cate, and my baby boy, Torin. I also like to think John and I had mutual respect. A few years ago, he told me he thought I asked quality, insightful questions. As a young journalist, that meant a lot to me. But that didn't stop me from asking the tough ones.
Unfortunately for Illinois, Groce and his staff, there were too many tough questions to be asked during his tenure -- especially the last calendar year marked by too many off-court incidents and too few wins. Groce simply didn't produce to Illinois standards, which is why his close friend Josh Whitman dismissed him on Saturday.
So why did such a hopeful hire end up with the worst Big Ten winning percentage of any multi-year Illini coach during the last century? Here are the five biggest reasons -- of which the next Illinois coach should take note.
If you're still selling the point guard you coached from 2009-2012 to recruits in the 2016 class, that's a problem.
Groce's Ohio teams were sparked, if not carried, by Chicago native D.J. Cooper (the 2013 MAC Player of the Year) running his ball-screen offense. Groce often used video of Cooper to show point guard recruits how much control and freedom they would have in his offense. Groce certainly caught the eye of several top point guards.
Within his first year, he cracked into the top-two for Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. Groce swung for the fences and fouled a few to the backstop, but ultimately struck out with Jackson staying home to go on to an All-American career at Notre Dame and Rathan-Mayes filling up the scoresheet at Florida State. Groce then settled for Simeon point guard Jaylon Tate, who most assumed (and were right) would never be a Big Ten caliber starter.
In 2014, Groce just had terrible luck -- thanks in large part to JaQuan Lyle. When Lyle committed to Louisville, that pushed Louisville native and four-star point guard Quentin Snider out the door. Illinois welcomed him with open arms and got him to commit in September 2013. But when Lyle backed out of his Louisville pledge and flipped to Oregon (and then eventually Ohio State), Snider was pulled back to his hometown and dream school. He decommitted from Illinois on Signing Day. While most were focused on Cliff Alexander's hat trick, the Snider decommitment may have been the biggest blow during Groce's tenure. Snider has gone on to have a very good career at Louisville (averaging 12.7 points, 4.1 assists this season). If Snider is on the 2015 team, it likely makes the tournament. If he is on the injury-riddled 2016 team, that team would've had a chance. If he is on the 2017 team, there are few doubts that team makes the tournament. His decommitment at the last minute completely altered the Groce era.
And the 2015 class only made matters worse. Despite the lack of a Big Ten caliber point guard in the three previous classes, Groce continued to swing for the fences. And it's hard to blame him when five-star in-state point guard Jalen Brunson and top-50 point guard Jawun Evans told him the Illini were in their top-two. But Illinois misread these recruitments. The Brunson family was drawn to Philadelphia (Temple or Villanova) and most outside the Illini staff never thought Evans would travel too far from home. And neither seemed to like that Illinois was recruiting the other. In the end, the Illini missed on both -- and missed on the point guard who wanted to be at Illinois: Glynn Watson, the half-brother of former Illini star Demetri McCamey. Brunson won a title at Villanova his freshman season and the Wildcats enter the 2017 NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Evans is having an All-American season at Oklahoma State and will likely be a first-round draft pick. Meanwhile, Watson provided Nebraska with the Big Ten quality starting point guard the Illini sorely need.
Groce finally landed a Big Ten-quality point guard in the Class of 2016. But a broken leg robbed Lucas of an offseason and Groce took far too long to play Lucas over Tate. Lucas looks like a good piece for Illinois moving forward, but Groce needed that caliber of point guard three years earlier.
Point guard is the most important position in college basketball. Without one, Illinois' offense finished 11th among Big Ten teams in offensive efficiency Groce's last four seasons -- a huge reason Illinois missed four straight NCAA Tournaments.
Given the unbalanced, thin roster Groce inherited from Bruce Weber, it makes sense why John Groce wanted to add some transfers to his roster. The idea was that transfers like Rayvonte Rice, Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul would bridge the gap to Groce's prep prospects and allow Groce to make NCAA Tournaments and gain some momentum.
The idea makes sense. The problem is -- it didn't work. And that hurt Illinois greatly in the long run.
Groce has said "scholarships are gold." Well, besides Rice, the transfers largely were fool's gold.
Investing three years of scholarships in Rice was worth it. He was the best player on two teams (15.9 points as a junior and 16.5 points as a junior). And despite the narrative, the Illini's late-season failures in 2015 weren't on Rice, who was greatly productive and efficient when he was on the court.
But a quick study of the rest of the transfers is ugly.
Illinois invested two years of scholarships in Cosby, a Seton Hall transfer. All they got out of it was 19 games, 7.8 points per game and a 29.3 field goal percentage.
Illinois invested two years of scholarships in Starks, an Oregon State transfer. They expected to only invest one, and maybe Starks would've been enough of an offensive boost to lift the 2014 team to another win or two (and an NCAA Tournament berth). But the NCAA denied his hardship waiver request and he sat out a season. Out of two years of scholarships, Illinois got 7.7 points per game and a 34.3 field goal percentage.
Illinois invested three -- count 'em, three -- years of scholarships into Paul, the younger brother of former Illini star Brandon Paul and the 2013 MAC Freshman of the Year at Western Michigan. Yet, Paul NEVER played a game at Illinois due to two arrests: a year-long suspension after an on-campus arrest in 2014 and a dismissal after a 2015 arrest during the team's European trip.
Charlotte grad transfer Mike Thorne Jr. also ended up having a low impact. Illinois invested two years of scholarships, but Thorne was limited to nine games (12.9 points per game) in 2015-16 due to a knee injury. After receiving a medical hardship waiver, Thorne is averaging just 5.1 points through 22 games this season.
Those scholarships in hindsight, especially the early ones, could've and should've been invested in prep prospects. This is a generalization, but transfers usually carry some kind of baggage and can impeded culture-building. Groce never really developed the culture or depth he wanted due to his failed investment in transfers.
Yes, Groce had some pretty bad luck too. Injuries ravaged the team in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Tracy Abrams missed both seasons with major injuries. Rice missed six games with a broken hand. Thorne and Black missed most of the 2015-16 seasons, severely depleting the Illini frontcourt. Nunn and Tate also missed games with injuries last season. Jalen Coleman-Lands has not had a full offseason yet due to two injuries. Te'Jon Lucas missed the offseason with a leg injury. Everyone has injuries, but few have been ravaged with injuries during those two seasons like Groce. Kudos to strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher though for keeping the Illini pretty injury-free this season though.
Also, we had the debate last year about how much control a coach has of his players off the court. There are arguments for both sides. What can't be argued is that there certainly was a trend of a lack of discipline off the court. Rice and Cosby were both suspended for games during the 2014-15 season. Illinois gave Darius Paul several chances. Maybe they shouldn't have given him the last one. Black made one big mistake that resulted in a four-game regular-season suspension. Nunn's guilty plea for misdemeanor assault resulted in his dismissal from the team. How much better would Illinois have been this season with a 15+ point per game scorer?
Too many injuries and too many distractions. Those issues can bury a program that already has so many other issues.
As mentioned previously, Rice was great when he played in 2014-15. He was the team's most efficient scorer, best defender and had a career-high assist rate. He wasn't selfish. But the rest of the team played poorly when he was on the court. That points to poor chemistry, which ultimately points back to coaching and recruiting.
That's just one example of how the sums of the teams Groce recruited often seemed lesser than their parts. This season's team had enough talent to be a no-doubt NCAA Tournament team and finish a few spots higher in the Big Ten. Yet, it lost games to Winthrop, Penn State (x2) and at Rutgers -- and it was often blown out of the gym on the road.
Penn State and Rutgers may have finished with worse records than Illinois, but both teams seemed to play connected. Both teams had the identity of "toughness and togetherness" that Groce preached. The identity of Groce's program was inconsistency. The culture did seem to improve the last few months, but it was too late. The offense usually involved too much dribbling, too little movement off the ball and too much "hero ball," as Groce called it. The defense worsened during his time, partly due to the staff's failures to recruit athleticism.
It seems we never saw the team Groce truly wanted to coach -- and that's on him.
Groce's predecessor was loyal to his staff until the end -- admirable but also a mistake. Despite the issues in recruiting and on the court, Groce never made a change to his assistant coaching staff.
While the staff landed some good recruits, they missed on too high a percentage of their top targets and didn't add enough athleticism.
Groce's right-hand man Dustin Ford pulled in just a few recruits from his Ohio roots (Mav Morgan and transfer Kipper Nichols) and none from his Canadian connections. His biggest get (top-100 point guard Trent Frazier) just signed last fall. Paris Parham -- who replaced Isaac Chew, who left for Marquette just months after Groce hired him -- landed Te'Jon Lucas out of Milwaukee, DaMonte Williams out of Peoria and D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan out of Chicago but missed on blue-chip Chicago recruits Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, Jalen Brunson, Charles Matthews, Marcus LoVett and Charlie Moore. Like many previous Illini staffs, Groce's staff struggled to get a handle on Chicago recruiting and the prospects it landed from the Windy City have made little impact (other than Nunn). Newly elevated interim coach Jamall Walker has been the most effective recruiter of late, landing Leron Black, Jalen Coleman-Lands and 2017 signees Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett.
Then there's the X's and O's angle. Illinois underachieved in 2015 and 2017. Illinois made many questionable coaching decisions, most notably the stubbornness with the rotation this past season. After having such a thin roster the previous few seasons, Groce seemed infatuated with "strength in numbers." He employed a double-digit rotation for too long and played struggling veterans for too long, especially his insistence on playing Tate over the far more dynamic Lucas. Shaking things up or adding a more prominent, experienced voice may have helped.
Groce did make some minor moves to his staff. After Brandon Miller left for Butler, Ryan Pedon took the assistant to the head coach position on the staff. When Pedon then took an assistant job at Butler, former Billy Donovan staffer Darren Hertz took the role. Groce's best staff move was adding strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher, who topped out this rosters athleticism and severely cut down on injuries.
Those moves were just too little, too late.