At the end of the Bruce Weber era in Champaign, IL — now almost two years ago — the vibe around Illinois basketball wasn’t pretty. Weber’s last Illini team was viewed as a major disappointment, and people involved with the school were tired of seeing what they believe to be an elite basketball program underachieve.
The school desperately needed a new voice, so they chose to hire the very passionate and oftentimes overly energetic John Groce. Groce’s hire was initially met with a lot of skepticism. At the time, he was a bit of an unknown, although he did lead Ohio University to the Sweet 16 prior to being introduced as Weber’s successor. Many Illini fans were hoping for a big splash hire such as VCU‘s Shaka Smart or then Butler coach Brad Stevens. So, the disappointing vibe associated with the program persisted.
However, Groce has proven people wrong. Now in the latter part of his second season in Champaign, he very much so looks the part of a quality coach and leader, as well as a terrific recruiter. He guided Illinois to a 23-13 record in his first year on the job, nearly leading the team to what would have been a stunning Sweet 16 appearance. Just qualifying for last season’s NCAA Tournament was considered a tremendous success in itself.
Last year’s version of the Illini and this year’s bunch have a lot in common, both good and bad. They both jumped out to improbable 13-2 starts to their respective seasons, much to the surprise of many folks around the county. However after these starts, trouble struck. A tough 2-6 stretch made last year’s wonderful start disappear, and this year has provided more of the same — another 13-2 start followed by another disastrous stretch.
Currently, Illinois in the midst of a six-game losing streak, but here’s where they have to hope history repeats itself. Last season, Groce, along with dynamic senior Brandon Paul and the rest of the Illini, were able to right the ship. They broke out of that horrible funk while producing some big time wins down the stretch that earned them a spot in the field of 68.
Paul was the guy last year who took charge, essentially putting the team on his back. This year, that guy has to be the junior transfer Rayvonte Rice. Illinois, as it stands today, sits at 13-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big 10. Two great opportunities lie ahead with games at home against Iowa and Wisconsin.
If history has taught Groce and the Fighting Illini anything, it’s that there is still plenty of time to turn this thing around.
Matthew Sturgeon is a College Basketball writer for RantSports.com. He covers the Big 10 Conference. You can follow him on Twitter @OfficialSturg27