Looking to avoid an Illini hoops disaster in a difficult season

By Alex Roux

At Illinois, it’s reasonable to expect the men’s basketball team to make the NCAA tournament.

Barring extreme circumstances and an occasional rebuilding season, that expectation was solidified and instilled into multiple generations of Illini hoops fans over the course of nearly three decades. From 1981-2013, Illinois missed the NCAAs in back-to-back years only once and fell short of the tourney just eight total times.ss

Expectations have reluctantly been tempered recently under John Groce, as the Illini look poised to miss the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season. That level of futility at Illinois hasn’t been reached since the 1970s.

Groce made the tournament in his first season in Champaign and should be forgiven for missing it with a makeshift team in his second. Fans began to grow restless when Groce also missed the tournament in his third season following to a complete team collapse down the stretch.

In this season — Groce’s fourth — injuries have forced tournament hopes to be reset.

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Remember those aforementioned extreme circumstances capable of skewing program expectations? This season certainly fits that criteria. We knew three months before the season when senior point guard Tracy Abrams tore his Achilles that Illinois wouldn’t be at full strength.

Since then, we’ve seen leading scorer Kendrick Nunn, leading rebounder Mike Thorne Jr., sophomore forward Leron Black and junior point guard Jaylon Tate all miss multiple games with injuries.

Add in an unusual November schedule due to arena renovations and you have a season that is an outlier, and one where reasonable expectations go to die.

Six games into the Big Ten season, Illinois sits at 9-10 overall, 1-5 in conference play, and is coming off the program’s worst loss in 20 years in a 103-69 drubbing at Indiana.ss The NCAA tournament is a pipe dream and even a third straight NIT appearance is looking unlikely with Thorne and Black still sidelined indefinitely with meniscus injuries.

So what is there to look for from the Illini as they navigate the rest of their Big Ten schedule?

Besides keeping an eye on the status of Black and Thorne, it’s important to look beyond the scope of this season while watching what awaits this team. Even if fans have already written off this season as lost and given up — the players and coaches certainly haven’t — the overall trajectory of the program could still be at stake.

Four years ago, Bruce Weber was coaching his final games at Illinois, soon to be fired following a nine-year stint in Champaign. The 2011-12 Illini lost 12 of their last 14 games, completely cracking under the weight of trying to salvage a slipping season with their coach on the hot seat. One of the lowlights of the whole saga was NBA-bound sophomore Meyers Leonard sobbing on the bench in the midst of a blowout loss at Nebraska.ss

The heat has certainly turned up on Groce in the past calendar year, but he’s nowhere near as close to losing his job as Weber was in his final Illini campaign.

Even this year’s depleted roster has the talent to compete with almost any team remaining on its schedule, but Illinois is also more than capable of playing down to competition. It isn’t hard to envision another prolonged conference losing streak if things start to snowball.

I’ve been looking for cracks in this team’s resolve — sagging shoulders, press conference comments, deviation from game plans, etc. — that could signify an impending meltdown. There had been occasional instances of all three until the Indiana game, when everything caved in.

That should serve as the biggest red flag of all.

If Illinois turns it around and plays a bit above its talent level these last two months while showing little trace of the team we saw against the Hoosiers, then it will be easier to argue that the program is positioned for a bounce-back season under Groce in 2016-17.

Whatever your feelings toward Groce’s full body of work at Illinois, it’s okay to concede that it’s unfair to truly evaluate his livelihood during a season where so much happened beyond his control.

But when the things he can control — game plans, substitution patterns, the ability to connect with his players — go by the wayside, then there is little left to defend.

Groce recently brought in 3-star recruit Javon Pickett as the first member of his 2017 class and hopes to assemble a group of regional and talented 2017 prospects who could truly get the program back on track. If the season crumbles, Groce’s sales pitch and job security will get a lot weaker.

The Big Ten tournament offers a Big Dance ticket to the champion, so there’s always an incentive for Illinois to keep fighting until the end. But the Illini appear to be approaching a cliff.

He just can’t afford to let them go over the edge

Alex is a senior in AHS.?

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