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Illinois Basketball Gaining Traction?
There is a certain chill in the air in Champaign-Urbana every year around this time. For the last few years the same could be said about the Illinois basketball program. A combination of missed opportunities, injuries, and bad luck has made the Illini faithful weary of what is to come. Follow me on a journey all the way back to 2012 to find out how we got to this point.
Bruce Weber was fired as the head coach after 9 seasons. Fans loved Bruce (or Brruuuuuuuuuuuuce as he was often called) during the 2005 season in which the team went all the way to the national title game. After success on the court became less and less over time, Illinois felt it was time to make a head coaching change. Enter John Groce. Groce had just led Ohio University to one of the school's best seasons ever. The Bobcats came within an overtime of defeating #1 seed North Carolina and advancing to the Elite 8. The run to the Sweet 16 was good enough for the Illini (after reaching out to and being turned down by VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens) to make John Groce it's next basketball coach.
Groce inherited a pretty good team when he took over in 2012. Led by 3 seniors (DJ Richardson, Brandon Paul, and Tyler Griffey), Illinois finished the season with a 21-13 overall record and received the #7 seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament. They were defeated in the 2nd round of the tournament by #2 seed Miami, 63-59. Fans were pretty excited for the future of the program and how far Groce could take them especially after bringing in a top 20 nationally ranked recruiting class.
The 2013-14 season did not go quite as well. The team, made up of veteran junior college transfers and young freshman, never really meshed together well enough as the team went 20-15 and lost in the 2nd round of the NIT. The 2014-15 season ended with Illinois going 19-14 and another trip to the NIT. 2 straight years of not making the NCAA tournament had fans wondering if Groce was actually the right guy for the job. It seemed like the next season was going to be a make or break year.
The 2015-2016 season for Illinois will be remembered as the year of the injuries. Before the season started, very talented freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands developed a stress fracture in his leg and missed most of the summer months. Tracy Abrams, who was coming off of a torn ACL which prohibited him from playing the previous season, again had his season ended short. This time to a torn achilles tendon. In October, Sophomore forward LeRon Black tore his meniscus and would be out 4-6 weeks. 4-6 weeks turned into the season due to recurring swelling in the knee. Later in October, starting guard Kendrick Nunn tore a ligament in his thumb and missed 8 weeks. Starting big man Mike Thorne tore his meniscus late in November. The team could not get over all of the injuries and suffered through a 15-19 season. It marked the 3rd straight year the team did not qualify for the NCAA tournament. While that is not acceptable for the Illini faithful, they basically gave Groce a "pass" for not due to all of the injuries.
After all of the injuries, Illinois finally received good news during the summer of 2016. Both point guard Tracy Abrams and center Mike Thorne were granted 6th years of eligibility due to the injuries each had sustained in previous seasons. Recruiting, finally, is now going well, too: After coming close but missing out on top prospects Cliff Alexander, Juwan Evans, Jalen Brunson, Quentin Snider among others, Groce and his staff have a top 15 recruiting class after receiving commitments from 3-star player Javon Pickett, 4-star forward DaMonte Williams (son of former Illinois great Frank Williams), 4-star guard Trent Frazier, and 5-star center Jeremiah Tilmon. In what may be the ultimate "make or break" year for Groce, Illinois started off 4-0 before dropping games to Winthrop, West Virginia, and Florida State in succession. Recently, the team beat a good North Carolina State team by 18. Is that the game that turns Illinois' season around and, along with the strong recruiting class coming in, keeps Groce at Illinois for a while? Only time will tell but while the weather turns cold in Champaign, the heat is being turned up for Groce and his Illini.