From the Saturday, Feb. 27, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …
The WISCH LIST
By Dave Wischnowsky
He’s lost recruiting battles. He’s lost players to injuries — and he’s lost them to suspension. And, yes, he’s certainly lost games, as well.
But perhaps none of those things is as troubling as what University of Illinois basketball coach John Groce has lost most recently.
Last weekend, less than an hour before Illinois was scheduled to tip off against Wisconsin for a Big Ten tilt at the Kohl Center in Madison, I tweeted how “Illini basketball used to be appointment television for me. But, these days, it’s just not.”
I know that I’m far from the only fan feeling that way.
Since I was a kid, I’ve loved Illini hoops. In fact, when it comes to sports moments that I hope to witness in my lifetime, a national basketball championship for my alma mater trails only a Chicago Cubs World Series title. And whereas the latter seems as if it actually might be closer than ever before, I don’t think the former has ever before felt so far away.
That’s sad. But what’s most depressing is that I don’t even really feel sorrow about the current sorry state of Illinois basketball. I don’t really feel angry about it, either. Rather, as the Illini careen towards a third straight March without an NCAA Tournament bid — an occurrence once unthinkable — I don’t feel much of anything at all.
Apathy has consumed my fandom. And, again, I know I’m far from the only one, which is why my advice to new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman is to build off the good vibes following his own introduction and look to hire a new Illini basketball coach — sooner rather than later.
Yes, John Groce supporters can continue to preach patience for his program. They can use injuries as an excuse and shuffle blame for his players’ disturbing suspensions. They can even argue that come next season Illinois basketball will be better.
It should be. But better doesn’t mean good. And even if the Illini did make an NCAA Tournament in 2017 — an accomplishment that should be the bare minimum expectation at Illinois — that would hardly guarantee that the program is pointed in the right direction.
The fact is that it simply isn’t. Groce’s recruiting misses far outnumber his hits. His coaching shows a startling lack of in-game adjustments and overall discipline — both on and off the court. And in the big-boy Big Ten, he’s looking every part a mid-major coach who went middling 34–30 in the Mid-American Conference.
During his final four seasons at Illinois, Bruce Weber’s wins dropped from 24 to 21 to 20 to 17. Groce was brought in to stem that tide, but barring a miraculous late-season run, he’s instead mimicked it with his wins falling from 23 in Year 1 to 20 to 19 and to the current tally of 12.
Overall, Weber went 82–53 overall (.607) and 36–36 in the Big Ten (.500) over his final four campaigns before being fired — markedly better than Groce’s current 74–58 (.561) and 28–41 (.406). And it can hardly be dismissed that Groce’s only good season— his first — came with Weber’s roster.
Beyond the numbers, Illinois — a basketball state if ever there was one — has devolved into a state of basketball apathy. Huge swaths of seats sit empty at State Farm Center (only 6,212 fans showed up for a win over Rutgers). Former die-hards tell me how they now barely follow the team. And after losses, social media is filled with more diffident shrugs than impassioned shrieks from a listless Illini Nation.
Last week, following his impressive introductory press conference at Illinois, Whitman said, “… I feel like over the last few years, one of the challenges has been in some ways that we’ve lost our identity.”
Yes, Illinois basketball has lost that too, and it’s high time to find it. But I’ve lost confidence that John Groce is the coach who holds the map.
It’s time for a new leader to guide the way.