Despite a season that, pending a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, will end as Illinois' third straight campaign without an NCAA tournament appearance, John Groce will continue to be the Fighting Illini's head coach.
New Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman gave Groce his vote of confidence Saturday during a radio interview on WDWS.
— NewsTalk 1400 WDWS (@wdws1400) March 5, 2016
"I think it's important today that folks understand that John Groce is going to continue to be our basketball coach," Whitman said in the interview, his quote published by the Champaign News-Gazette. "He's a first-class individual and an excellent leader. He's a student of basketball and leadership, and I feel really comfortable with the leadership he's given our guys."
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This season has not gone well for the Illini, who finish their regular-season schedule Sunday against Penn State. A slew of injuries — including season-enders to Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne and Leron Black, all three projected starters — has made for a rocky road during what is at the moment a 13-17 overall record and a 5-12 mark in Big Ten play. It follows what was a disappointing season a year ago, when injuries were the story, as well. Abrams missed the entirety of last season, too, and star scorer Rayvonte Rice missed a nine-game chunk of conference play with an injury and a suspension. The Illini finished 19-12 overall and 9-9 during the regular season before getting blown out of the Big Ten Tournament by Michigan and blown out of the NIT by Alabama.
Groce's program has also been affected by off-the-court issues in recent seasons. Two arrests in two years forced the yearlong suspension and then the dismissal of Darius Paul. Both Rice and Aaron Cosby were suspended during last season, with Cosby eventually leaving the team. And Black is currently suspended indefinitely after he was charged with pulling a knife on a bouncer at a nightclub.
But there are multiple reasons why it makes sense that Whitman sticks with Groce. Certainly this run of horrible injury luck has to end at some point. The results the past two seasons can be excused to a degree considering the large amount of time missed by key players. But also there's been good news on the recruiting trail for Groce of late. He finally landed a point guard in Milwaukee's Te'Jon Lucas, currently the lone member of the Illini's Class of 2016. And just last weekend, the Class of 2017 got a serious injection of talent with Peoria guard Da'Monte Williams, a four-star recruit and the son of former Illinois star Frank Williams. That addition coupled with Belleville guard Javon Pickett has things looking real good for the future.
That being said, even with Whitman's vote of confidence Saturday, Groce's margin for error can't be too big. Results are ultimately what coaches are judged on, and while last season's tourney miss made it the first back-to-back years without an invite to the Big Dance since 1992, this season would be the first time Illinois has missed three straight NCAA tournaments since 1980, the season before the Illini snapped a 16-year tournament drought.
Groce has his athletics director's support at the moment. It's up to him to do some winning to earn it for the long term.