As the final buzzer sounded on March 12, 2015, the Wolverines celebrated, and reality sunk in for John Groce and his Fighting Illini. A disappointing 73-55 loss to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament would send the Illini home early, but more notably, they would not be making the NCAA Tournament.
To make matters worse, Illinois put on an embarrassing performance in Tuscaloosa during the first round of the NIT Tournament. A 79-58 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide featured 32% shooting from the floor and a lack of team chemistry all around. It was not the way John Groce wanted to see his team finish the season. "If you caught me after Alabama game, you'd have caught me a lot of bit emotional. I'm still disappointed in it," noted Groce. A season of injuries, suspensions, and disappointing finishes culminated on a tough-to-swallow note, putting plenty of pressure on the relatively new head coach going into his fourth season.
The Illinois Fighting Illini fan base continually has high expectations for its basketball program. It's difficult to see a program on the decline over the past decade, and fans, alumni, and the university will do all they can to ensure success in upcoming seasons. After missing his second straight NCAA Tournament, John Groce has to be feeling a little bit nervous.
In his first year with the program, Groce took the Fighting Illini to the NCAA Tournament where they marched past Colorado in the first round and fell just short of the highly-talented Miami Hurricanes in the Round of 32. After a disappointing final season for Bruce Weber, Groce's first-year success was just what the Illini fan base wanted. Unfortunately for Coach Groce, he would face difficulty over the next two seasons.
The Fighting Illini in 2014-15 only returned 3 players who had previously seen court time at the University of Illinois. Five freshmen and two upperclassmen transfers capped off a flimsy roster for Illinois, but despite the lack of depth, Illinois managed to fall just short of the NCAA Tournament, snatching a two seed in the NIT. One season without going to the NCAA Tournament is typical, especially during a rebuilding year, but two is unheard of at Illinois. The last time Illinois missed the Tournament in two straight seasons was 1991-92, but Groce unfortunately managed to repeat history. The Fighting Illini fell short of the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and arguably took a step back from what they did the previous year. The Fighting Illini earned a lower seed in the NIT and were blown out in the first round.
To John Groce's credit, there hasn't been a lot of luck over the last season or two. It's been a matter of rebuilding and "making it work" for the head coach, especially after his team was plagued by countless injuries in the 2014-15 season. Star point guard Tracy Abrams was out for the entire season after a torn ACL in earl November, and when guards Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby went out with injuries in early January, Groce had to promote team manager Ryan Schmidt to the roster to fill spots.
Considering the cards he has been dealt, John Groce is not yet on the proverbial hot seat. There was no question as to whether or not he'd keep his job going into next season; he arguably hasn't been given a fair chance to prove his worth to the program. That being said, there comes a point where, as a head coach, you just have to make it work. John Groce may not have as much talent on next year's roster as he'll lose key players Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu to graduation, but he's going to have to find a way to make it back to the Tournament if he wants to continue to coach at the University of Illinois.
Next year is most likely "do or die" for Groce. Three straight years without an NCAA appearance would not bode well for the head coach. John Groce seems passionate enough and dedicated enough to "make it work" at Illinois, but a tough Big Ten Conference and some roster question marks stand in his way next season.