Long road of rebuilding ahead for Groce

2012 was to be a changing of the guard for Illinois athletics. 

The Ron Zook and Bruce Weber eras ended with both coaches getting fired following late-season collapses. The hiring of Tim Beckman and John Groce, two young coaches from mid-major schools with fiery passions and something to prove, gave Illini fans hope for a new era.

It’s been less than three months, but Beckman has already succeeded in sucking the hope out of the football program, stumbling to a 2-6 record with every loss embarrassing in its own fashion. The most recent defeat, 31-17 to hapless Indiana, may have been the worst.

But the jury is still out on Groce and the men’s basketball team. 

The general consensus is that Groce takes over an Illinois team in somewhat of a rebuilding phase. The Illini lost their center and defensive anchor Meyers Leonard to the NBA, probably the best player from a unit that limped to a 17-15 record, a ninth place finish in the Big Ten and missed out on any postseason play.

Leonard’s departure leaves Illinois with just one center, sophomore Nnanna Egwu, whose game is more suited for scoring outside of the paint. Sophomore Tracy Abrams is the lone true point guard on the roster, another glaring hole in Groce’s guard-heavy offense with a focus on tempo. 

And then there’s the competition level. The Illini will face plenty of nonconference tests — Gonzaga, Missouri and an excellent Maui Invitational field to name a few — before entering Big Ten play against what is undoubtedly the nation’s best conference. With five teams in the preseason top 25, including three in the top five alone, the Big Ten is as tough as it’s been in years, and Groce and his team will experience a wealth of growing pains. 

Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers was in a similar position as Groce at this time last year, entering his first season with the Nittany Lions after spending time as an assistant coach at Villanova and a head coach for two years at Boston University. Like Groce, Chambers’ teams at Boston loved to run. But transitioning to the Big Ten, Chambers found that those opportunities came much fewer and far between. 

“They don’t turn the ball over a lot,” he said at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday. “So you’re not getting any easy runouts, many easy baskets. So that was challenging because you really gotta run good sets, gotta be crisp in everything we do because you’re always in a half-court offense instead of getting up and down.”

But Groce isn’t taking over a roster without talented pieces. Yes, Weber missed out on the Derrick Roses’ and Anthony Davis’ of the world, but he did not leave the cupboard completely barren. Both the sophomore and the senior recruiting classes were well received nationally, with multiple top-100 players in each class. Five seniors — led by four-year starters Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson — provide veteran experience. 

By the end of last season, Weber was no longer able to reach many of those players and the team stopped responding to his coaching style. To have any chance of success, Groce will have to get those same players to buy into his system and his style. 

According to the other Big Ten coaches at Thursday’s media day, who had nothing but positive words for Groce, the new Illini coach has the tools for making that happen. Thad Matta, whom Groce coached under at Ohio State for four seasons from 2005-08, sang his former colleague’s praises for much of the day.

“John’s prepared,” Matta said. “And he’s prepared himself from day one when he started coaching for this opportunity. John is a very, very hard worker. He’s a very intelligent guy. And he gets it. He understands the climate of college basketball, and I think that’s what’s gotta happen.”

The most important lesson Matta, who has built a basketball powerhouse at a historically football-centered school, imparted to Groce was the importance of developing great relationships with his players.

“Obviously, you learn a lot of different things, like strategically. Basketball-wise, he’s a really good coach,” Groce said. “But I think just the biggest thing is just how that piece of having great relationships with your players.”

This process is apparent in Groce’s early actions as Illinois’ coach. In interviews and press conferences, Groce’s intensity is apparent. Anyone who has seem him maniacally pacing the sidelines during games, crouching in a defensive stance and reacting to calls, cannot doubt his passion for the game. And in the early going, the players seem to enjoy Groce’s freer, more uptempo offensive style.

But even in a best-case scenario where players completely buy in, this Illinois team has a hard ceiling on how successful it can be. The talent and culture in place at this season’s elite tier of Big Ten programs — Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — dwarfs anything Illinois can assemble in one year with Groce at the helm. 

Brandon Paul is not Trey Burke. Nnanna Egwu is not Cody Zeller. Myke Henry is not DeShaun Thomas. Nor are any of them really close. 

So while it is reasonable for the Illini nation to hope for better than the ninth-place conference finish of a season ago, wishing for a whole lot more is unrealistic. If all goes well, sixth or seventh in the Big Ten might be in the cards. Maybe a second or third round NCAA tournament exit. 

And although that may not be the immediate return to prominence Illinois fans desperately want, rebuilding a program is a lengthy process. 

“You gotta get some breaks, you gotta stay injury free and eventually it works,” said Michigan head coach John Beilein, who has returned the Wolverines to national prominence in his sixth season. “Create the right culture, continue to recruit, have the administration to support you, and it can get done. But like I said, the competition is fierce to try to get there. You can get to the top six or seven (in the Big Ten) if you’re trying to turn a program around, if it’s Illinois or whatever. That gets you to the NCAA tournament today in this league. And if you get there, then everything starts to change.”

Illinois’ return to the top won’t happen this year. It might not be the next. But sometime in the near future, Groce will have the Illini back in the mix as one of the nation’s elite programs. 

Daniel is a senior in Media. He can be reached millerm1@dailyillini.com. Follow him on Twitter @danielmillermc.