In case you were wondering whether Illinois was taking allegations against members of its men’s basketball team seriously, well, Josh Whitman and John Groce had an answer for you Thursday.
Your level of satisfaction with that answer is completely up to you.
“We recognize that we have had a number of situations here. I understand people’s concerns, I understand their frustrations. I understand them because I share them,” the athletics director said. “I certainly understand and share the frustrations and concerns that people feel surrounding the allegations that have surfaced involving some of our men’s basketball student-athletes. These are serious allegations. We will never shy away from that. We recognize how important and concerning these allegations could be and are.”
“I understand others’ concerns. I do. I take the seriousness of these allegations very seriously,” the head basketball coach said. “For us, I keep going back to what we’ve talked about from Day 1: our mission to help our players grow as people, students and athletes — in that order. And that has not changed. I’m anxious to work with Josh in that regard and to continue to educate our players on choices. … We’ve got to continue to find ways to do that and to do that better.”
The tandem of leaders within a program growing seemingly more tumultuous by the day didn’t seem to sell many during a 45-minute impromptu press conference in Champaign.
Three members of the team have been arrested in the past several weeks. Sophomore forward Leron Black was charged with pulling a knife on a nightclub bouncer last month. In separate incidents a week apart, junior guards Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn — both Chicago natives and Simeon High School products — were charged with domestic battery.
Whitman and Groce were correct in pointing out that comment, judgment and discipline should come after the legal process has played out in all three cases. Those demanding the trio gets kicked off the team before allegations have been substantiated as part of the legal process should share the same patience.
But eyebrows were raised on social media when Groce kept talking about “choices.” It’s a term often used when a coach is describing a student-athlete’s transgressions with marijuana or underage drinking. The allegations facing the three Illinois players are far more serious, far more violent in nature. And for Groce’s admonishment to come down to simply “make better choices,” that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
“Do we recognize the severity of the allegations? Absolutely. Do I still think it’s a choice? When something like that happens, does it get back to a choice? Yeah, I do, I think it gets back to choices,” Groce said. "I’m certainly not trying to oversimplify it or downplay the seriousness of it. I understand how serious it is, I think everybody does. But I think at the core it’s about choices.”
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Now, for Groce, this is a fine line to walk. It’s difficult to respect the legal process and allow it to play out without comment while at the same time appease those who scream for instant repercussions.
But with four arrests since last summer — Darius Paul was dismissed from the program following his arrest in France during the team’s European trip — the questions about the program’s overall culture were certainly justified.
In answering those questions the way he did, Groce didn’t seem to think anything was wrong with the big picture of his program.
“I don’t worry because I know who’s in our locker room, meaning the culture piece,” Groce said. “I know what we’re about, I know how we do it, I know who the guys are in our locker room. Am I concerned? Yes. That’s why we’re here today and understandably so. Antenna’s up? Yes.
“It’s hard for me to take three alleged incidents and lump them into the whole. Obviously, I’m in the battle with those guys, so I get to see it from a little bit different perspective. But I believe in those guys, and I know they believe in what we’re doing and how we do it.”
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There were many on social media left unsatisfied with what Groce had to say Thursday, unsatisfied that he wasn’t more forceful, unsatisfied that sweeping changes weren’t coming. And that, of course, was made all the easier by the fact that the Illini stayed home and watched the NCAA tournament on TV for a third straight year.
Groce was right in not diving into specifics. He shouldn’t be thinking about doling out his own version of justice before the justice system does things itself. But when arrests come in bunches, perhaps everything isn’t OK with your basketball program. That’s a theory Groce didn’t even seem to consider.
“I understand. I’m the leader of the men’s basketball program, and I always look inward,” Groce said. “What can we (Groce and his staff) control? The environment, the culture, our discipline when it comes to certain behaviors, consequences. At the end of the day, do I think that we can control choices (the players make) 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week? That’s hard. We can educate them, and we are committed to doing that.”