WASHINGTON — It's decision time for Josh Whitman.
Illinois was blown out of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday afternoon in D.C., and in all likelihood John Groce's fifth season as the Illini head coach will end similarly to the previous three: without an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
Groce's job status has been a topic of conversation since before the season even began, with even a three-year tournament drought being unheard of in Champaign since the early 1980s. Now that drought figures to stretch to four years, and Whitman needs to decide if Groce is going to snap that drought any time soon.
Asked after Thursday's game how he feels about the state of his program at the close of another disappointing season, Groce pointed to intangibles, to cultural successes, to playing better and tougher and more together over that late-season surge that allowed Illinois to get back on the NCAA tournament bubble.
"I feel good," Groce said. "Certainly four to six weeks ago, I didn't feel as good in terms of how we were playing. Obviously you can't control the results all the time. In terms of what we want to be about — the fight, the way we prepare, the will to prepare, the way guys approach practice, the teammates that guys have been to each other, the young guys' development — you put all that together and I think this is the most connected team that I've (had), certainly over the last month, since I've been at Illinois. So you add that to what we've got coming in and some guys that are young now, it's exciting."
The thing is, any progress that's been made on that cultural level seems to be getting outweighed by a lack of progress in the win-loss department. Even after a four-game winning streak and a stretch of five wins in six games that featured victories over at least two teams bound for the Big Dance, a team that supposedly figured things out couldn't win the games that mattered most.
A winnable game in the regular-season finale at Rutgers could've punched the Illini's ticket to the tournament. Instead, they lost. A win over a Michigan team that arrived in Washington hours before tipoff could've done the same. Instead, they lost. The Illini ended this season at 18-14, an improvement over last season's sub-.500 finish but still the second-worst record in Groce's five years.
Groce deserves commendation for his successes — which in addition to the cultural ones he promoted Thursday include his tenure's best recruiting class, slated to arrive in Champaign ahead of next season — but the plain truth is that those successes haven't resulted in the kinds of things college basketball programs are measured on.
It's up to Whitman to decide if the areas where Groce has succeeded are worthy of giving him another chance or if the lack of tournament berths and a drop to the status of one of the Big Ten's perennially weaker teams means it's time for a change.
Groce was asked point blank if he expects to be the coach next season. He responded that he does.
"Sure. As long as I'm the coach today, I always expect that," he said. "For me, I look at it one day at a time. I approach it that way, let's put it that way, every single day. I'm always thinking about, it's my job to do that, to learn from every circumstance. To continue to coach this team is important to me, and to continue to build for the future. And that's what we do every day, so that's certainly my expectation."
Whitman has acted decisively before. On his first day on the job last year he dismissed head football coach Bill Cubit, and within a few days, Whitman revitalized the Illinois football program by bringing former Bears head coach Lovie Smith back to the Land of Lincoln.
Will a similarly swift move be forthcoming? It was easy to look at the Tim Beckman Era as an unmitigated disaster, and obviously the off-the-field issues that resulted in Beckman's firing and Cubit's one-year ascension cannot compare to the way Groce has run the basketball program.
But football, too, was a losing proposition. Basketball's on-court results haven't been much better. Will that be the criteria Whitman uses to make this decision? And does Whitman have a replacement ready that would bring the same kind of excitement to basketball as Smith did to football? It's hard to imagine many potential mid-major promotions bringing the jolt the program would need.
Tracy Abrams, the senior point guard who's been with the Illini longer than Groce in six seasons as a member of the program, had a rosy outlook when asked about the future after Thursday's loss.
"The future's always bright for the Illini," Abrams said. "Great program. Going to continue to be a great program. Obviously I made a connection with the younger guys. I gave those guys everything I got in terms of experience. They watched me go through adversity and things allow that, watched my response. The sky's the limit for our program. It's going to continue to be the limit. We never going to settle, regardless of what it is."
Does that future include Groce? Hopefully his sales pitch to Whitman, whenever the two get together to discuss that future, is a little more hefty than just "well at least we won some games at the end of the season." But that's what Groce was telling reporters Thursday in Washington, emphasizing the intangible progress.
"I do like what we've done over the last four to six weeks, especially (mentally)," Groce said. "The foundation to me is this year's team did finally get to the point where we played with some toughness and togetherness. We had good leadership, had good connection with our players. You've got to have that first before you can do ultimately what you want to do, and that's why I feel good about our team."
That's a hard sell to Illinois fans who can still remember the glory days of the Bill Self and Bruce Weber Eras.
We'll see if Whitman agrees.