For the fourth straight year Thursday, any speck of hope in an Illinois basketball season vanished with a black eye and a bloody nose.
Josh Whitman should call a press conference today to mop up the mess.
Very few people like and appreciate John Groce more than I do. I admire so much about the man and, like Whitman, if there were any way to hand him the basketball program and have his leadership guide this team to Big Ten title contention and NCAA Tournament success, this would be the easiest call in the world.
Keep him. Extend his contract. Hand him a generous raise. Name something after him.
Alas, the missing ingredient is the success, which after five seasons simply hasn’t materialized.
This is and always has been Whitman’s call. But the repeated failure to reach the upper division of the Big Ten and the collapses in games of importance once again will leave fans watching the NCAA Tournament Selection Show Sunday without a rooting interest.
There’s always the NIT Selection Show, which is Illinois’ all-too-familiar fate. But that’s getting old. And annoying.
The circumstances Thursday were odd. After 19 years bouncing back and forth between Chicago and Indianapolis, for the first time the Big Ten Tournament was played in Washington, D.C. While trying to get there Wednesday, Michigan’s team charter slid off the runway in Ypsilanti, Mich., bouncing across a road and coming to a jarring stop when it finally slowed down skidding across a ditch.
The engines were smoking when coach John Beilein calmly helped his wife, then his team, coaches and their families off the plane. They ran to get away from the craft, fearing an explosion and a fire.
The flight was delayed until early Thursday morning and due to a delay in Washington, D.C., ground traffic, the game started nearly a half-hour late.
Michigan’s uniforms were still stuck in the belly of the plane. They played in practice uniforms that made the Wolverines look like an intramural team.
But when Michigan took the floor, Beilein said he could tell they were excited. They were ready to play. Heck, they felt lucky to be alive and if you were guessing which team might have travel fatigue, it would be Illinois.
Michigan jumped on the Illini immediately and the lead quickly zoomed to 20 points at 31-11.
Only a heroic effort by sixth-year senior Tracy Abrams (23 points) kept this from exceeding the 32-point loss to West Virginia that was the worst beating of the season.
Malcolm Hill, whose career has been so steady, finished the 75-55 loss with four points on 1-of-8 shooting. By the end he was limping noticeably, which Groce waved off as a non-factor.
People ask how Whitman could do anything other than make a coaching change.
I’ve thought about that, wondering what explanation he could offer, because a contract with a coach is also a contract with the fans. It’s a statement that the school is committed to a winning product and that under current circumstances, this coach is the best person for the job.
Whitman’s only plausible explanation would be that Groce has been overwhelmingly handicapped by the absence of a point guard, and that he’s turning the corner with the arrival of Te’Jon Lucas and, next season, with the arrival of a nationally ranked recruiting class.
But that’s a colossal leap of faith most fans just don’t see. The four straight wins against Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska and Michigan State were nice, but consecutive losses to Rutgers and Michigan all but erased any feeling of hope they may have created.
The incoming recruiting class, should they arrive and play for a new head coach, will be exciting. If they trigger a revival of the program, Groce deserves credit for jump-starting the process.
But it’s time to hand the program over to another coach, another vision, another perspective that might bring this program back to a level fans can get excited about again.
Every season won’t be like it was in 2005, when Bruce Weber took Bill Self’s recruits and smartly guided them to the national championship game. Those seasons are rare.
But being in contention for Big Ten titles should be the norm. Being competitive in a first-round Big Ten Tournament game should be the norm. Playing in the NCAA Tournament should be the norm.
I’d be disappointed if Josh Whitman doesn’t see it the same way.