The most impressive thing I saw on Tuesday night was the Illini cheer and dance teams. When Illinois let the Badgers get off to a 16-2 start or when they pulled within 6 points and fired up the home fans only to let it slip away, the smiles never faded. It takes either a great commitment or a serious psychosis to remain so chipper-seeming during such disappointment; I’ll lean toward the former and credit the cheerleaders and dancers for their efforts.
The basketball team, however, deserves less credit. They lost this one in the first 5:30, when they allowed Wisconsin the 14-point head start. The final score, 57-43, hardly matters.
Eight games remain in the regular season for Illinois (13-9, 3-7). They need every single game to be a win in order to get over the magic number of 20 and move themselves off the NCAA Tourney bubble to “likely in” status. That’s not going to happen, nor will a magic run to a Big Ten Tournament championship, it seems.
So, that means four years in a row without a tournament berth for the first time in 35 years. A lot has been made about this fact, but only because it is truly remarkable. Consider that Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Jaylon Tate will be the first players to play four years at Illinois and not see reach the Tourney since Michael Jordan was a senior in high school.
It’s self-evident now that John Groce will be fired. Forget about his incoming recruiting class or brilliant analytical mind, just look at what his resume is now: 90-71 overall and just 32-50 in conference play.
Somehow, there are still people who think Groce needs more time or needs to stick around for his recruits. Hard as it is to believe, they exist on #illini Twitter, and they’re way more earnest than trolls seem to be. So here’s more facts about what Groce has wrought.
The Illini have 10 losses by 20 or more points under Groce’s four-plus years, nearly as many as Lou Henson had in more than 4 times as many years coaching. Put another way, it’s 60% more than Lon Kruger, who had the next highest number of 20-point losses since 1976, in roughly the same amount of time.
Groce has also done less with more experience. Looking at just the last 10 years, Groce has the oldest team by a mile [I calculated age score in the graph below by assigning a number to each class (1 for freshman, 2 for sophomore, and so on up to 6 for sixth-year players Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne)] and also has the lowest conference win percentage. This is an imperfect measure, as most statistics are, but it illustrates the weakness of Groce-coached teams, especially in light of the fact this year’s team is still trending downward.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for some alumni and fans, Illinois has fallen off its perch as the best basketball in the state. Since 2004, when Illinois was on its way to being the best in the nation (nevermind the state), you can clearly see how the Illini have plummeted in rankings of all 355 D-I teams. Neither the traditional ranking, RPI, nor advanced metrics, KenPom, like Groce’s team. Meanwhile, teams like Northwestern (who are ranked now, in case 2017 wasn’t weird enough) and Illinois State are ascendant and likely Tourney-bound.
It would be easy to waste a few hundred words explaining how much more enjoyable Northwestern and ISU are to watch compared to the Illini, how they play scrappy defense and never stop hustling, how they seem to be having fun on the court rather than slogging through the games. But it’s already clear, and I expect fans are going to make it clear in these last 4 home games that they want that, not the poor product Groce is turning out.
Rob McColley, former Illini beat for SP, now at Illini Report, had an interesting comment before the Wisconsin game. He said you could simply say “When did you start making your list?” without any further context to an Illini beat writer and they would tell you what loss inspired them to start compiling names for Groce’s replacement. What would be more interesting would be to put that same question to athletic director Josh Whitman. He’d never give a straight answer, but I suspect that sometime around March 13th he’ll start showing his hand. Until then, at least the cheerleaders are smiling.