Five years ago, as Bruce Weber drove the final nails into the coffin of Illini basketball, I began writing his obituary for Smile Politely magazine.
Illinois won all those games. Those wins sealed Weber’s fate. Illini fans don’t care to watch close wins over ostensible patsies.
Today, I’d like to write about something else. Unfortunately, when your job is to write about Illini basketball, the plot line doesn’t change. Five years later, much to my chagrin, I’m still writing about Tracy Abrams barrelling into swarms of defenders.
I’m still writing about dropping attendance. I’m still writing about a team that scrapes past mid-major — okay, let’s be honest … minor — programs.
I’m writing about a basketball program that nobody reads about.
Maybe the college basketball landscape has shifted since the days when Big Ten teams didn’t lose to teams from conferences you’ve never heard of. Heck, the mighty Thad Matta lost to Florida Atlantic last night in Columbus! I don’t even know what conference they represent! (Oof, Google tells me it’s C-USA. How the momentarily mighty have fallen.)
Anyway, thing is, #WeWillWin doesn’t care to embrace this new reality, if it is, in fact, real.
#WeWillWin means, tautologically speaking, that we will win.
It means not only won’t we lose at home to Tennessee State and Miami (OH) and Winthrop. It means we will win.
It implies that our conference finishes will include 10+ victories. It suggests post-season relevance.
Meanwhile. John Groce retains a downright Zookian demeanor in the face of overwhelming ennui. “We’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that” remain favorite refrains in Groce’s fifty-eighth month of turning the program around.
The sense of dominance that you might expect at this point, in year five, has yet to be established. The sense of figuring things out prevails.
Tuesday night, Groce mused that the team could benefit from watching every minute of the debacle it had just vomited up in front of hundreds, nay thousands of fans (but nothing like the 10,536 claimed as official attendance).
What could a team expect to learn by watching 40 minutes of a game in which a 3-and-5 Summit League team nearly prevailed?
I don’t know, but I’ll bet it’s nothing like the lesson an undefeated conference contender could learn from a 25-point win over the same opponent, even though the walk-ons played the final five minutes.
With another Groce-ism, the current coach reminded a small media contingent that coaches prefer practice and players prefer games.
Groce has seen the Assembly Hall cum State Farm Center media room packed with content producers.
More often, and more recently, he’s dealt with a small and familiar group whose audience is either small and passionate (online mostly) or probably not reading/watching.
That the local newspapers and TV stations still attend is not surprising. What else can they report to retain readers/viewers? In this town, it’s Illini sports, Urbana shootings and weather — in reverse order — that keep people interested.
John Groce was hired on the strength of a recruiting reputation earned at Ohio State. He was hailed as a Matta protégé.
Groce himself has been consistent in telling us that he’s a disciple of Todd Lickliter and Paul Patterson, his high school and (irrelevant NAIA) college coaches.
You haven’t even heard of Paul Patterson, and you know what happened to Todd Lickliter. Those two may be great basketball minds. That’s true of John Groce as well. And you too!
None of you has proven an ability to lead a high-major basketball program.
Some people think The Notorious UIC was the nadir of Illini basketball. But that team advanced to the tourney. The UIC game was six years ago. The December 2011 game at United Center was UNLV, which wiped the floor with Weber’s last team as disgruntled Illini fans (people who, in the past, showed up for games in Chicago) lustily booed the head coach.
Gavin Schilling and Cliff Alexander were just two of the recruits on hand that day. None of them ever played for Illinois.
Will this Illinois team mirror the 2011 Illini (20-14, 9-9) whose seniors were just mediocre enough to trip into the dance? Will they completely fall apart, like the next year’s team (17-15, 6-12)?
Right now, it looks like neither. This team resembles the 2010 Illini. There’s the veteran point guard whose performance has never quite equaled his expectations and potential. There are a bunch of big men, a couple of whom can shoot really well, but often seem dominated inside. There’s the power forward who’s a rebounding fool with a great midrange game.
2010 was the last Illini team to earn a winning record in conference (10-8). They looked good against weaker opponents, and fared well against good competition when they shot well.
They were absolutely slaughtered by quicker teams. Remember the Dayton game in the NIT? Yikes.
I’ve written critically of John Groce’s inability to transcend his inescapably John Grocey tendencies for roughly three years now.
It’s possible that this year’s team will return John Groce to the NCAA. Maybe Kipper Nichols will be the Bizarro Alex Legion. But it’s frightening, when reading the fandom online, to realize that a lot of people are expecting Kipper Nichols to be the Bizarro Alex Legion. Nichols is fast becoming the back-up QB legend for all-time among Illini fans who
- are capable of typing
- have access to the Internet
- have never seen him play, not once, ever
i.e. they expect Kipper Nichols to step in and take over this team, once he gains eligibility in ten days.
Even if he seems more acclimated to Groce’s unnecessarily complex schemes than he did two months ago in practice, Nichols will still be playing his first-ever college games, undersized at the position Groce requires him to play, and not considered by the staff to be a sufficiently good shooter to play his natural position.
As of last night, this team doesn’t appear to be John Groce’s redemption. Groce doesn’t blame the players the way Weber did. But Weber’s behavior only made him more vile, and easy to blame/fire.
Groce has yet to reach the players with his message, whatever that is. He’s still working on it, in that Zookian way.
There will come a day when Groce gets that message across. Or, there will come a day when the plug is pulled on “we’ll need to get that fixed” and “we need to take a look at that.”
For the first time in ever, none of Malcolm’s mom, Aaron’s dad or DJ’s family attended an Illini game.