Big Ten

Even after arrests, Josh Whitman committed to John Groce as Illini coach


Even after arrests, Josh Whitman committed to John Groce as Illini coach

Three arrests in a little more than a month won’t necessarily determine John Groce’s future as the Illinois head basketball coach.

During a 45-minute impromptu press conference Thursday in Champaign, athletics director Josh Whitman doubled down on his endorsement of Groce.

Just a few weeks ago, on his first day on the job and shortly before dismissing head football coach Bill Cubit, Whitman gave Groce a vote of confidence during a radio interview, saying that Groce would continue to retain his job despite a third straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance.

Then came two separate arrests of Illinois players and charges of domestic battery, the arrests of junior guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn occurring after Leron Black was arrested in February and charged with pulling a knife on a nightclub bouncer.

Whitman and Groce acted appropriately in refusing to comment, judge or discipline before the legal system runs its course in all three cases. But Whitman did make a somewhat surprising statement Thursday, indicating that even if all three players are found to have done what they've been accused of, it won’t necessarily mean the end for Groce.

“I came out and made some strong statements supporting John and his leadership of our men’s basketball team. That position has not changed,” Whitman said. “I continue to believe very strongly in the leadership that John is providing.

“I disagree that if any of these allegations are proven true that that necessarily requires that John no longer be our men’s basketball coach.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Groce defends culture amid allegations, with talk of 'choices' not selling many]

It was about as strong a vote of confidence as one can receive considering the tumultuous state of the Illinois program. These latest arrests made it four since last summer. Prior to these three in the last two months, Darius Paul was dismissed from the program following his arrest in France during the team’s European trip.

Add to that the overall lack of on-court success that saw Illinois miss the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season for the first time since 1980, and Whitman is putting a lot of faith in Groce when many fans are doing the opposite.

“The reality is that there are a lot of great things happening in our men’s basketball program right now,” Whitman said. “Our student-athletes are achieving academically, they’re doing good work in our community and they’re doing the right things in the gym to continue to build themselves into a championship-caliber program.

“I’ve got great confidence that John is the right person to lead us.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

Whitman’s strong support of Groce is all the more interesting when contrasted with the lightning-quick coaching change he made with the football program earlier this month. That same day Whitman made his initial supportive comments about Groce, he dismissed Cubit. Two days later, he introduced Lovie Smith as the new head football coach, bringing an instant and sweeping change to a program that experienced an intense amount of turmoil last year.

But those hoping he would have an equally itchy trigger finger when it came to Groce are just going to have to be disappointed. And they’ll have to share the same patience that Whitman does when it comes to a basketball program that has undoubtedly seen better days.

“We live in an instant-gratification society. People want to assume that the best way to handle a situation is what often can be construed as the easiest way. They want a clean slate. Well that’s not always the best decision,” Whitman said. “My job isn’t to make the easy decision, it’s to make the right one. And in certain cases, as in this one, the right decision is to roll up our sleeves, get down in the trenches and work hard with someone that you trust, who you value, who shares the same vision that you have for a program and to work together to put that program in a position to be as successful as we all want it to be.

“There are times to make changes. I’ve shown that we’re not afraid to do that. And there are times, like now, to get down and to get to work and to build something we can all be proud of. And that’s where we are as a program.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?