There were two things that made Josh Whitman's decision to fire John Groce difficult: Their strong relationship and Groce's stellar 2017 recruiting class.
Groce is a stand-up guy. He works hard. He cares for his players. He has a fight to him. Those things resonated with Whitman and there were obvious commonalities that made them close friends.
And while Groce's on-court results were blatantly incriminating, he hit the bar of expectation on the recruiting trail in the 2017 class by pulling in a group that currently ranks ninth in the country. Whitman could have easily pulled the trigger on Groce's firing after last season with losses in bulk and off-the-court issues piling up themselves.
But he stood by his guy to give him the opportunity recruit -- which he knew could have major possibilities based on the landscape and the groundwork the staff had laid -- and also win. Groce was only able to do one of those things at a level to continue representing Whitman's 'We Will Win' brand.
Now, that recruiting class is a major focus. And Whitman addressed its importance at his press conference on Saturday.
"It did complicate things. It’s unusual to have a program who has performed as ours has over the last few years but have a recruiting class that’s as highly rated as ours is this year," Whitman said. "I hope that they will give us every opportunity to bring in a dynamic new coach, give that coach a chance to build a relationship with them and then continue to want to be a part of the Fighting Illini."
"I’ve gotten to know most of those recruits throughout the process and look forward to talking with them over the course of the weekend."
We know how Illinois feels about those four players who signed on the dotted line in November. The question will be how do they feel about Illinois firing the head coach they signed up to play for, and what do they plan on doing going forward.
Belleville East guard Javon Pickett was the first commit of Groce's 2017 class. He was an important first domino and he helped to push other players to come with him. And individually, Pickett is a first-team All-State selection with a gift to score the ball.
IlliniInquirer.com got his reaction right after the news broke on Groce.
"It’s sad to hear that he got fired. That’s who we built our relationship with. We got close with him. That’s who we thought was going to be our coach when we got there," Pickett said. "Throughout the whole thing – when everybody said he was going to get fired – we just had to keep a positive attitude about it and keep thinking that he was going to be there."
"It’s a sad moment because he’s a good guy."
What did Pickett like the most about him?
"His attitude. He was genuinely a good person. He always had a good vibe with you. He cared about the person. He just showed love to you," Pickett said. "When you’d come around, he was always excited to see you and give you a hug. It was great."
Jamall Walker was named the interim head coach by Whitman on Saturday. Walker was the lead recruiter for Pickett, and he said he is hoping he stays.
"Of course, I hope Jamall stays," he said. "He recruited me, so I built a real good relationship with him. It would be nice if he sticks around for the next coaching staff."
Does this change anything? The question that will be asked with all of the recruits. Pickett said it probably won't.
"That's where I committed to, so I don't see why I'd change it up. But we'll just have to see how everything pans out and how everything goes in the future."
Pickett added that he's talked to the other recruits about their future too. He said they texted each other when the news hit.
Will they stick together?
"I feel like we will. We got a good bond. We built a great relationship with each other," he said. "I feel like we're all going to be good."
Tilmon's mom told IlliniInquirer.com on Saturday that they don't have a comment at this time. Frazier has remained quiet since Groce's firing, and so has Da'Monte Williams. At least in terms of public comment.
Someone who hasn't stayed quiet is the player who is going to win Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois: Edwardsville guard Mark Smith. He has been a prime candidate to add to Illinois' rich collection of talent in this class. And based on what he's showing, he may be more important to get on board with a new coach than any of them.
IlliniInquirer.com got his thoughts on Groce's firing.
"I built up a good relationship with him. I’m a little sad to know Coach Groce is gone," Smith said. "But I will be looking at whoever they hire and I’ll be looking to build a relationship with them. And go from there."
Smith said there was a lot to like about Groce from his perspective.
"What he said I was going to be able to do there. Just the kind of person he is. The way he said he was going to use me and how he recruited guys to make the program better. He just wanted to win," Smith said. "I like Coach Groce a lot."
As with others, keeping Walker on the next staff is something Smith would like to see.
"I would like that if Coach Walker would stick around," he said. "I like Coach Walker a lot. We've built a great relationship."
Smith and his dad have been paying very close attention to the situation in Champaign for two months, and especially over the last few weeks with Groce's status very much up in the air. They've anticipated what would happen if a move was made, and here it is.
"I hope they hire their new coach soon so I can try to build a relationship with him. I don't want to make a decision and not even talk to the coach," Smith said. "I need to get down there and meet and talk to whoever they hire."
Important times lie ahead. There is nothing more important than hiring the right basketball coach for the program's long-term success. That will be Whitman's goal, and he made that very clear.
But these players directly affect Illinois' ceiling in the immediate future.
How do you keep Tilmon? That family has constantly harped on the significance of Walker. If Walker isn't around, there's a good chance Tilmon won't be either. And they aren't willing to put out a statement of assurance until that has been satisfied.
How do you keep Frazier? He was sold on Groce and Dustin Ford building an incredibly strong relationship. They showed him love that he didn't get from his homestate program or anyone else. He wanted to be the point guard of the future in Champaign. He will surely have to be sold on that again -- despite his sustained love for Illinois as a program and university.
What about Smith? That chase was never concluded. But there has been strong buzz that he simply wants to play at Illinois. Other programs can try to give the Illini a run. But if Whitman is able to make an attractive hire and give Smith time to get comfortable with the coach before decision time, Illinois will remain in a good spot.
Pickett said his piece, and he has always been expected to stay. Williams has been assumed to be on board regardless as well. But there are people around him who really liked Groce, and some had a feeling that he shouldn't be fired. That being said, Williams has wanted to go to Illinois for a long time. It's close to home and it's where his dad's legacy resides.
There is plenty at stake here. And uncertainty will make for some feelings of uneasiness over the course of days and possibly weeks.
But Whitman infused a strong feeling of confidence in the Illini fan base on Saturday. His statement of striving for greatness was evident and impactful.
He will now go from the role of supporter to recruiter. And there's no one else you'd like to have selling Illinois to prospective coaches and current recruits.