Big Ten

Groce defends culture amid allegations, with talk of 'choices' not selling many

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Groce defends culture amid allegations, with talk of 'choices' not selling many

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Numbers might disappoint, but Melo Trimble still leading Terps deep into March]

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.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Rutgers announces Steve Pikiell as new head basketball coach]

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.”

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

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.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.