Illinois Fighting Illini Need to Take Steps Forward Under New Coach John Groce

By Brian Lester
Bradley Leeb-US Presswire

It sure did look good at the beginning of last season for the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The Illini soared to a 10-0 start, and while they did have some easy games in that perfect run, you had at least had to believe they could be a player in the chase for a Big Ten title.

Yeah, that outlook turned ugly in a hurry.

Illinois won only seven more games before being bounced into the offseason by the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

The trainwreck ending led to the firing of Bruce Weber and the hiring of John Groce, who was coming off of a year in which he took the Ohio Bobcats to the Sweet 16.

I was a little surprised Groce was hired to lead the Illini, but maybe it won’t be turn out to be such a bad decision in the long run.

After all, Groce did work under one of the best coaches in the business in Thad Matta, spending eight years with him during stints for the Butler Bulldogs, Xavier Musketeers and Ohio State Buckeyes.

That experience counts for something in my book.

Groce was at Ohio State with Matta from 2005 until 2008, so he understands what life is like in the Big Ten and what it’s like to be on top. He understands what it will take to put the Illini back on the map in one of the best basketball conferences in the country.

Will it happen overnight? Don’t count on it.

Remember, this is only his second gig as a head coach. He compiled an 85-56 record while at Ohio and led the Bobcats to a pair of Mid-American Conference championships.

The fact that he did win at Ohio and that he did take a team no one expected much deep into the NCAA tourney gives me hope that Groce can get the job done.

It’s just going to take him time to build his program. The good news is D.J. Richardson is back for the Illini after clicking for 11.6 points per outing. Richardson drilled 71 3-pointers and will need to raise his game even more this year.

Groce will also have the luxury of having Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand in the lineup. Brandon led the team in scoring last season, pouring in 14.7 points per game. He knocked down 54 treys. Bertrand averaged only 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per outing but should be a more viable threat for the Illini this season.

Illinois averaged only 65.6 points per outing last year. That stat will need to rise if the Illini are going to be a competitive team in the conference.

Defensively, the Illini should be fine. Giving up 64.2 points per game isn’t bad at all and defense may be the thing the Illini will need to hang its hat on early in the season.

I don’t expect Illinois to win a conference title or go to the NCAA tournament this year. A winning season and an NIT bid would be a big step in the right direction for the Illini.

All I know is we need to see signs of progress from Illinois, something to give us a reason to believe the Illini are on the right track going forward.


Follow Rant Sports Big Ten columnist Brian Lester on Twitter @BLester1993 or drop me a line at

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