INDIANAPOLIS — When new Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman gave John Groce a vote of confidence last weekend, there were plenty who wondered why.
Year No. 4 of the John Groce Era came to an end Friday in Indy with a 31-point loss to Purdue, and for the third consecutive season, Illinois will not play in the NCAA tournament. It’s the first three-year stretch without a Big Dance invite for the Illini since 1980.
But despite those upsetting numbers that don’t quite mesh with the standards set in Champaign, those numbers alone cannot adequately tell the story of Groce’s last couple seasons.
The number that weighs the heaviest is the number of games Groce’s players have missed in the past two campaigns. Tracy Abrams has missed them all, leaving Groce without the senior point guard he thought he was going to have in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. Rayvonte Rice missed nine games a season ago with a combination of an injury and a suspension. This year, in addition to being without his starting point guard in Abrams, Groce lost his two starting big men, Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black, for almost the entirety of the season.
It all adds up to this number: 32-32, a .500 record over the past two campaigns.
That’s obviously not ideal. But Groce believes that the struggles of the past two years have taught his players something. And with next season the next thing in front of this team, applying those lessons becomes the next mission.
“The guys in here got some more opportunities earlier and got thrown into that fire a little bit and had to figure it out. And I think it’s made each of these guys in here better, and I think it’s going to make our program better,” Groce said. “It’s not fun going through some of it. But I think at the end of the day, the outcome of that will be a positive thing. I tell them the struggle will make us a little bit stronger.”
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“I think the most important thing, we learned a little perseverance,” Kendrick Nunn said. “Sometimes when the game doesn’t go our way, just stay consistent and stay solid and play outside the game.”
Other than anecdotal evidence from the head coach and the players that improvement has come in the midst of all that has happened to the team the past two years, there was real on-the-court proof this week in Indy.
Before bowing out in Friday’s blowout, the Illini surprised many with impressive wins on back-to-back days, first routing Minnesota by 33 and then upsetting fifth-seeded Iowa. Illinois looked stellar on both ends of the floor in those contests, which Groce believed were examples of what can happen when everything comes together.
Fast forward to next season, and imagine what Illinois will look like when everything — and everyone — comes together. That’s what Groce is looking forward to.
“I think our team has really improved individually and as a team,” Groce said. “We started to get some things. The last couple of weeks, the lightbulb started to go off a little bit. You could see it in practice, and you could see it in the way that we played in stretches of games. And obviously to come here (to the Big Ten Tournament) and play back to back very consistently. And I liked the fact that we were resilient (Thursday). … So all of those things, I think, bode well for us moving forward.”
“Against Minnesota and Iowa, we showed what we’re capable of,” Michael Finke said. “We really played together really well as a team. We came together, and I think we’ll use that to motivate us going down the road. (The Purdue) game we won’t look at much, but we’ll remember this feeling and build off of it going into the offseason.”
Surely there are, as Groce called them Friday, barriers to clear before the 2016-17 edition of the Illini fully comes into focus.
Will Thorne be back? Maybe seems to be the best answer anyone can muster. He was a graduate transfer this past season, spending his final year of eligibility. He did play in eight games, though just one came after November, when he ran 16 minutes in Illinois’ blowout loss to Indiana on Jan. 19. Perhaps that’s a small enough amount of time to earn him another season.
What about Black? While he sat out the majority of this season with an injury, he was recently charged after allegedly pulling a knife on a bouncer at a nightclub. The legal process is still working, making Black’s situation and future unknown.
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But here’s what we do know. Malcolm Hill and Nunn, who combined to average almost 34 points a game this season, will be back as seniors. Jalen Coleman-Lands will be back as a sophomore after blooming into a consistent scorer at the end of his freshman campaign. And Maverick Morgan, who when Thorne and Black went down made Illinois fans cringe as their only real replacement, evolved into a reliable front court player. Finke got better. D.J. Williams showed flashes.
It’s reason for the Illini to be excited about the offseason and the ensuing campaign.
There has been trackable improvement, even if the record didn’t show it. But next year’s task will be pretty clear cut: The record has to show it.
General consensus is that next year will be a make-or-break one for Groce, who likely wouldn’t be able to explain away four straight seasons without an NCAA tournament bid.
And so that adds another element to the mix in the form of pressure. This season was one of adjustment, Hill said Friday. Next season figures to be one of doing or dying, but Groce isn’t going to deviate from his process just because it seems like his future could be on the line.
“Obviously we want to play in (the NCAA tournament) every year. I’ve said that before, and those guys will tell you that, as well. You’ve got to control what you can control,” Groce said. “There’s some things you can’t control. Like (Thorne’s) knee, you can’t control that. So for us, it’s more about building on it, getting better, getting stronger, executing better. I think the guys understand how important it is to execute the little things better and well. And I think we’ll be better at those things. And then I think we’ll let the rest of it take care of itself.
“If you start forecasting what things are going to look like a year from now, 10 days from now, you can drive yourself nuts. I’m not going to do that.”