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Is John Groce The Right Guy For Illinois?

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Illinois went down to Michigan on Thursday afternoon and fans are beginning to wonder whether it was a statement of bigger issues in the program.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday afternoon, Illinois faced off against Michigan in the 2nd Round of this year's Big Ten Tournament in a game that would have major implications on Illinois' hopes for the NCAA Tournament.  Coming into the game, virtually every bracketology expert had Illinois squarely on the bubble, meaning the game was a "must win" for the Illini and could determine whether they were in or out of the Big Dance.

Unfortunately for Illinois, things did not go well.  From the start, Michigan came out shooting hot and Illinois struggled for any offensive consistency.  They did have a brief stretch in the 1st Half were they were able to get back in the game and grab the lead, but then the wheels fell off.  Michigan completely outplayed the Illini for the end of the 1st Half and the 2nd Half and won by a final score of 73-55.

Nobody can say with certainty what the NCAA committee will or won't do, but it's painfully obvious at this point that Illinois will not be in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.  Maybe there is some freak scenario where they can get close, but considering that even CBS - who had been the highest on the Illini for quite sometime - had Illinois coming into this game as a "First Four" team, it's hard to imagine any scenario where Illinois hears their name called on Sunday.  Michigan isn't a horrible team, but they are now just 16-15 overall and they just beat Illinois on a neutral court.  Even using basic logic, it's pretty easy to figure out that Illinois is heading to the NIT.

For some programs, an NIT bid might be acceptable, but for an Illinois program that has not had two consequetive seasons without an NCAA bid since 1992, the fact that Illinois will miss the Tourney for the second year in a row is a major red flag for the direction of the program and for head coach John Groce.

During his three year tenure at Illinois, Groce is 62-41 overall and 24-30 in the Big Ten.  His record is certainly underwhelming, but the fact that he has just one NCAA berth in his three seasons and is just 4-5 in all postseason play has to be concerning.  When you add in that this year could very well have been Groce's deepest and most talented roster yet with the team things get even more disappointing.

Of course, there are also positives about Groce's tenure in Champaign.  Yes, he has only reached one NCAA Tournament, but he does deserve at least some credit for that bid and it's also worth noting that when Illinois has missed the NCAA Tournament, they have at least been right on the edge in each of the last two seasons.  Things might not be perfect, but one could certainly point out that they could be a whole heck of a lot worse.

Groce has also been recruiting very well.   Even though the results haven't exactly showed up on the court yet, you can see how things are trending up on the recruiting trail.

Illinois Recruiting:

Illinois Recruiting Classes

National Rank

Big Ten Rank

Number of Commits

4-Stars Or Higher

2013 Class

20

3

5

3

2014 Class

47

6

2

1

2015 Class

10

2

4

3

* - 247Sports Rankings.

Perhaps the most significant member of any of those classes is incoming guard Jalen Coleman-Lands who has the potential to make an immediate impact next season.  Along with this, Leron Black, Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Jaylon Tate will all return next season for Illinois and could take steps forward.  There will be key offseason losses from Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice, but that is certainly a pretty formidable group to start with for next season.

Still though, talking about potential and recruiting only goes so far when fans are not able to see significant steps forward on the court.  In fact, according to KenPom, this year's Illinois team was weaker than last year's team and that team was weaker than the year before.  In fact, from the end of Groce's first season, Illinois has dropped nearly 30 spots in the KenPom team rankings.

Plus, if Illinois had simply taken care of business against the teams it should and/or could have beat, the story of this season could have been entirely different.  The two losses to Michigan, the road loss to Nebraska, letting home games slip away against Indiana and Michigan State, and failing to win a huge game against Purdue to close the regular season.  I can't reasonably sit here and say Illinois should have won all of those games, especially games against Indiana, MSU, and Purdue, but the fact is that all of those games were winnable.  Facing underwhelming teams on neutral courts or on the road and facing decent, but not great teams at home have to be considered winnable.  Illinois just could not win enough of these games this season.

With the number of players returning and the big time prospects coming to campus, John Groce certainly deserves at least one more season at the helm.  However, when you look at the trend of the Illinois program, there has to be doubts among fans on whether things are heading in the right direction.  John Groce may very well be the guy who can get Illinois back on track, but next year must be a measuring stick season as his first three seasons have given little evidence of significant progress.