Why don’t the Illinois Fighting Illini finish in the top four of the Big 10 Conference or go further in the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis? The program’s prior coaching staff was deficient in one major area, and it offset the major strengths of the program enough to drive its fan base to sign up for underwater firefighting instead of sitting through a season that effectively ended long before March. Is this year’s team — which has started 9-1 — any different from the infuriating teams of the past decade?
Illinois should be able to blend brains, brawn and effort on a yearly basis since it has fertile recruiting grounds and is traditionally a basketball school, but the Fighting Illini are a work in progress now because former coach Bruce Weber always managed to forget to blend the ingredients. Most of the time, his passive nature led to players doing their own thing and refusing to work together, which meant lots of bad shots and mentally weak squads.
Weber had the stuff on the counter in Champaign, and at times had everything in the mixing bowl, but never really started the ‘ol KitchenAid on his own. By the time March rolled around, he had left the ingredients sitting out too long and they went stale. He would still try to blend them, and we’ve all seen what happens when you try to start an electric mixer on liquefy. He does a mean job of supervising that mixer as long as someone else started it carefully — just ask Bill Self and Frank Martin.
Much like Tom Izzo and Thad Matta are educated in wizardry as a result of being a gremlin and Gargamel, Illinois’ second-year coach John Groce is also a wizard: he is Voldemort’s twin. He-who-Illini-fans-are-happy-to-name had to conjure up some dark magic last year and was able to turn Weber’s kitchen disaster into Professor Quirrel 2.0. That is, he took over a weakling that was seated in a position of great power and was able to overwhelm his host over the course of the year, with the end result being a premature appearance in the Promised Land and a quick, unsightly exit. Time will tell if Groce can get Illinois back to being a universally feared name in college basketball.
John Groce must prove that he knows how to field a winner over the long haul. His Ohio Bobcats teams always dropped too many regular season games to be taken seriously in the NCAA tournament, but a win over the Georgetown Hoyas in 2011 and a run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012 — where the Bobcats nearly beat the North Carolina Tar Heels — was enough to give him a shot at Illinois. Can he separate himself from his predecessor and prove he can win at the highest level time and again? Saturday’s game at the No. 15 Oregon Fighting Ducks will provide some insight into whether this season’s edition of the Fighting Illini has the mental makeup to finish near the top of the Big 10 Conference.