I think if you had asked any Illinois basketball fan after back to back losses to Michigan and Alabama how they felt about the program, their answers would not be suitable for print. Descriptions such as "train wreck", "rock bottom" or "dumpster fire" might have been the only non-expletives voiced by the common fan. John Groce had found himself securely on the hot seat and his methods when it came to recruiting and player development were being questioned openly amongst not only fans, but also publicly by former Illinois players. Facing another year without a true point guard and without a true center caused optimism for the coming season to be at an all-time low.
Other than the champions of the NCAA, CBI and NIT, every team in the country ends the year with a loss. Fans go into the off season with that loss being the last feeling that they have about their team. In Groce's first season Illinois gave a very good Miami team everything they could take before falling in the closing seconds. Fans felt great about not only the team but also about the coaching staff. In year two Illinois was forced to play on the road for the entirety of the NIT, falling in a very hard fought game on the road against Clemson. Most fan bases don't want their teams playing in the NIT, and no fan base wants their team to lose in the NIT. The year was disappointing, but at least fans knew their team would never quit. Year three under Groce would not allow any of that solace, but instead would leave everyone with questions about a team that clearly quit on the staff and the fans.
Groce did what all good coaches do, and instead of lamenting bad losses and worrying about fan dissatisfaction, he dived right back into recruiting. While the fans seem to forget how close this team came to making the tournament, Groce knows he only needs a few pieces to make it all work. His staff could be seen all over the country trying to find players to plug the very glaring holes in Illinois' roster. The staff targeted almost every transfer that came onto the market and so far have found one of the biggest needed pieces in Mike Thorne. The fifth year transfer from Charlotte will be immediately eligible for the upcoming season and will play a vital role for next year's team. The staff also seems to be very close to filling the other much needed roster spot with either another fifth year transfer Dylan Ennis from Villanova, who recently cut his list to Oregon, Illinois and Baylor, or with 2015 4 star PG Marcus LoVett out of Chicago. Either player would be a major upgrade at the point guard spot.
If Illinois were able to pick up a commitment from Ennis or Lovett, they quickly become a very dangerous team. The incoming freshman class has some very gifted players, with Jalen Coleman-Lands being the highest recruit in the Groce era. Between Coleman-Lands, red shirt freshman Michael Finke and Aaron Jordan, Illinois will add some very good shooters. With the addition of Thorne, it allows Illinois to play Darius Paul and Leron Black at the 4 which is more of their natural positions. Malcolm Hill will now be able to play at the 3 this year which is also his natural position and the position that he played the best at during last season. Ennis or Lovett would allow Illinois to not have to rely on Tracy Abrams for so much this season, which would be good since it is still unknown if he will return fully from his knee injury.
Overall the commitment of Thorne and the possible commitment of a good point guard has breathed new life into Illinois and its fan base. All of sudden next year's team will not be so one dimensional and is starting to look like one of the deeper rosters in the Big Ten. With the opening of the renovated interior of the State Farm Center in December, along with a team that has the ability to compete in the Big Ten and hopefully in the NCAA tournament, fans are starting to get excited.