Groce dealt bad hand in crucial season

By Alex Roux

Imagine you have a test coming up soon.

It’s a math test, and it’s an important one. In fact, your livelihood could depend on how well you perform on it. You’ve been preparing all summer for this test, spending countless hours getting ready.

A couple weeks before the test, you’re informed that you can’t use two of your three shiny No. 2 pencils on the test, and if your last remaining pencil breaks, you’re pretty much screwed. You also can’t use a calculator.

You wouldn’t feel very good about your chances on said test, would you?

Now use this extremely simplified metaphor and imagine how Illinois head coach John Groce feels heading into his fourth season in Champaign. On the heels of back-to-back NIT appearances, it’s a crucial year for him and his team.

Illinois basketball hasn’t missed three straight NCAA tournaments in over 35 years. Although I wouldn’t say his job was on the line, this was supposed to be a year of intense evaluation of the direction Groce is leading the program.

But with injuries to four key players and the dismissal of Darius Paul, the idea of a true “evaluation year” is now out the window. Senior Tracy Abrams is out for a second consecutive year. Junior guard Kendrick Nunn — out eight weeks with a thumb injury — and sophomore forward Leron Black — out for up to four weeks with a torn meniscus — are each expected to miss a handful of games, and freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands is recovering from a stress fracture in his leg. All five of them were expected to compete for starting positions.

What’s left of the 2015-2016 Illinois basketball team for opening night on Nov. 13? Junior small forward Malcolm Hill, who is an all-around stud, will be the go-to guy. Fellow junior Jaylon Tate will play heavy minutes at the point guard position. Maverick Morgan, another junior, figures to get a good amount of minutes in the post.

The rest of the roster, including a gimpy Coleman-Lands, has never played a minute of basketball for Illinois.

Think about that. At least the first few games of the season will be in the hands of three juniors and a remaining team of total question marks. Groce’s incoming freshmen, Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams and Coleman-Lands, are talented, and redshirt freshman Michael Finke will have a major chance to fill in for Black and contribute right away.

Fifth-year senior transfers Khalid Lewis and Mike Thorne will be relied upon to help steady the ship until Nunn and Black are able to return, but they’re both unknown quantities at the high-major level. With so much uncertainty, it’s hard to blame fans for giving up on the season before it even begins.

Maybe this series of unfortunate events will motivate the Illini. Hill is already drowning out the groans, scoffing at the notion that this season is a throwaway.

“To be honest, I don’t really care what everybody thinks,” Hill said. “Everybody always thinks we’re going to be bad. We know we’ll be all right within the locker room. We don’t really worry what other people say about us. It’s just their opinion.”

It’s a good mindset to have, but it remains to be seen if added motivation alone can keep Illinois afloat with so much talent in street clothes.

Injuries struck the Illini last year as well, making it difficult to evaluate if Groce was to blame for a late-season collapse that sunk the spirits of players and fans. The only way Groce is truly evaluated this year is if he leads his team to unexpected success against heavy odds.

It’s unfair for Groce and it’s unfair for the fans that Year Four has a black cloud hanging over it before it even begins. This was supposed to be Groce’s biggest test, but it’s looking like the results could be nearly impossible to grade.

He won’t make excuses and his players won’t either, even though they probably should be allowed to.

The only thing they can do now is roll the ball out and play.

Alex is a senior in AHS.
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