Deon Thomas and Paris Parham greeted one another on court, about an hour before the Michigan game. They reminisced about the one game they played against each other in high school. Dunbar beat Simeon, according to Paris. But the teams had to stay in their locker rooms afterward, until the gunplay cooled off outside.
Whatever happens to the Groce staff, Deon and Paris agreed they’d lived through worse. They’ve seen guys get shot. They’ve seen people killed.
The Groce Question was answered today, by an Illinois team that couldn’t compete with a league rival, and by John Groce himself.
Five years into the Groce experiment, Illinois is not in the same class as the Big Ten’s elite teams. Illinois is second-class. Worse, they don’t just lose. They get blown away. They’re simply not relevant in major college basketball.
The B1G’s third-class teams played Wednesday. Two of them left town before the second-class teams arrived to punish the survivors. The first-class teams will show up tomorrow, and feast on the second-class. Except for us. We’ve already been eaten.
The Illini will be in Champaign-Urbana when real B1G basketball gets underway.
Groce, to his credit, came right out and agreed he’d do it all over again, exactly the same way, rather than “coaching not to lose,” the sin Bruce Weber admitted while trashing his players for public consumption, in February, 2012.
The Groce Question by the way, is not whether Groce will be fired. It’s not whether he should be fired. It’s whether he can lead Illinois out of the slash and burn wasteland he inherited. The answer is no, he can’t.
Weber was fired five years ago today. If Groce doesn’t follow him out the door, we’ll know that Josh Whitman doesn’t have a home-run hire waiting in the wings. There’s no way Josh Whitman could let the Groce era continue simply because he thinks Groce needs more time, or might be on the verge of something big. Everything we know about John Groce says this is the way he’ll do it, including his own words.
He said during Monday’s pre-tourney teleconference that he doesn’t make in-game offensive adjustments. He can’t. His system is his system, for better or worse.
And you know what? Good for Groce. He told us on day one that he’s a teacher. And at the end, he told us the same thing again, and demonstrated as much. He’d rather coach these guys in practice than in games. That’s another thing he’s said, again and again, over his five years.
It’s perhaps not the best personality trait for a Division I coach. But it’s admirable.
So expect a new coach to be announced real soon. And if there’s not such an announcement, understand that it’s because Josh Whitman doesn’t see the point in giving a five-year contract to another mediocrity from the mid-majors. Or indeed, a super-performing coach from the low and mid-major conferences, like many from my long list. Or Cuonzo, whose NIT trajectory should eliminate him from the conversation (it won’t).
Yes, there’s the argument that Illinois basketball will get worse if Groce isn’t fired immediately. But that can’t be true. Either you’re relevant or you’re not. Illinois isn’t relevant.
The fanbase won’t grow. Fair-weather fans won’t come back until the weather is fair. But if this season is any indication, about 12,000 people will still turn out for basketball games.
Anybody that lived through 1989 or 2005 isn’t going to stop cheering for Illini basketball. They remember how great it feels when we’re first-class.
Saturday in Piscataway (poet, I know it) I met two Rutgers basketball fans. Possibly the two Rutgers basketball fans. Terry and Stuart graduated in 1978. That means they were students when Rutgers last made it to the Final Four.
I met them in the campustown Barnes & Noble. I was about to catch the free campus bus that runs between New Brunswick Station and the RAC. Instead, they gave me a lift.
When we arrived at the RAC, Mike Palko was just walking by. He was the starting center on that 1976 team.
These three guys still attend Rutgers basketball games, because they remember what Rutgers can be. They believe Rutgers will be back some day.
Illini fans vastly outnumber Rutgers fans. You needn’t be 61 years-old to remember the high. If #WeWillWin means anything, Josh Whitman isn’t satisfied with second-class. Whether it happens tomorrow, next week or next year; it’s going to happen.