I love Nintendo 64. Its party games are an essential part of the collegiate experience, whether your poison is Mario Party, James Bond: GoldenEye, Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. The only problem with this 90s classic is the inevitable blank television screen. That buzzkill when you turn on the system, only to find that bare, blue square staring back at you.
It is at this point you have to blow the dust out of a two-decade-old cartridge and do what John Groce is doing in Champaign right now –hitting the reset button.
Last season had promise. An 11-2 record in a nonconference schedule sprinkled with cupcakes and quality wins against Gonzaga and at Maryland gave room for some justifiable optimism. The trio of center Meyers Leonard, guard Brandon Paul and guard D.J. Richardson had the Illini riding high as they looked to carry momentum into Big Ten play and an NCAA Tournament berth.
But something happened.
The conference slate began and Illinois went into a 6-12 tailspin to end the season. No NCAA Tournament. No NIT. Just a mediocre 17-15 record, tie for ninth place in the Big Ten final standings and a spoiled final year for one of the most athletic big men in the country.
Perhaps it was lack of depth, as the aforementioned three-headed monster scored 60.7% of the Illini’s points and played 49.3% of the team’s minutes last year. Or maybe it was Illinois’ 49.4 team effective field goal percentage, which ranked 10th in the conference (its 30.4 three-point field goal percentage was last in the Big Ten). Regardless, it was clear the team chemistry was off for the Illini, who converted the second-least amount of assists per game of any Big Ten team.
Whatever the problem was, Brue Weber ended up getting the brunt of the blame. The sheen that glowed brightly in 2005, when Weber coached Bill Self recruits to an NCAA record-trying 32 wins, faded to rust.
Bringing back the Backcourt
Now, without Leonard and Weber, Illinois hopes to put last season behind them and again begin the ascent up the steep Big Ten ladder. They will do so with seniors Paul (jaw hopefully intact), Richardson, promising sophomore guard Tracy Abrams and transfers Rayvonte Rice from Drake (tattoo TBD) and 6-8, 230-pound forward Sam McLaurin from Coastal Carolina.
McLaurin, who is immediately eligible because the graduate degree of his choice was not available at Coastal Carolina, will try to close the frontcourt gap left by Leonard. Last season, McLaurin's 65.2 effective field goal percentage ranked 13th in the nation to accompany an average of 7.5 rebounds per game. Still, the talent and depth difference between Illini guards and forwards will be huge next season and may prove to be an exploitable weakness.
On the Recruiting Trail
But when Paul and Richardson leave, it will be up to Groce to fill the talent void. The former Ohio U. head coach has already landed a commitment from four-star shooting guard Malcolm Hill out of Belleville, Ill. But Groce could not land the big fish, Chicago phenom Jabari Parker, the best player in the class of 2013. Parker recently took Illinois off a narrowed-down list that includes Kentucky, Stanford, Michigan State, Kansas, Florida, Duke, North Carolina, BYU (he’s a Mormon), Georgetown and DePaul. The focus of Groce’s recruiting now turns to another Chicago high school superstar, center Jahlil Okafor.
The Promised Land?
The Illinois men's basketball program is not rolling its rock from the very bottom of the hill this year. No, that was Indiana in 2008. Rather, the Illini were making progress up the hill, the rock became bigger and the climb became more difficult.
Groce will not win the Big Ten in his season. He won't finish in the top three, either. I think realistically, Illinois will fall in the lower half of the conference standings, roaming around the 7,8 and 9 spot. As a goal, they should try to reach the Big Dance, but I don't see the Illini dancing in March. These aren't Groce's players, their inside depth is lacking and the Big Ten still is not a cakewalk. Shooting for the NIT might be an easier way for fans to avoid disappointment.
Many raised their eyebrows to Groce’s hiring and now we will see if his tactics on the court and recruiting trail will successfully turn on the game or leave the screen a blank blue.