A few years back John Groce managed to land an interesting transfer in Darius Paul. Paul, who had just finished his freshman season at Western Michigan (10.4 points, 5.7 rebounds per game and MAC Freshman of the Year), decided to transfer because of changes with the coaching staff and the desire to play at a higher level. While the 6'8" forward had offers from Florida, Iowa State, Marquette and a slew of others, he ultimately decided on Illinois, the school his brother Brandon had just graduated from.
Unfortunately for Illini fans, things haven't gone according to plan since Paul transferred to Champaign. Due to NCAA rules pertaining to transfers, Paul had to sit out a season before he would become eligible. That year off became a problem for the forward as he failed two drug tests and was then later charged with underage drinking and resisting arrest. The end result was Groce suspending Paul for all of last season, with Paul spending his time away from Illinois at the John Lucas Treatment Center in Houston, as well as playing for Lamar State - Port Arthur at the Junior College level. In his season at the lower level Paul would go on to average 17.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
After spending a year away from the program, Groce welcomed back Paul with open arms.
"It’s a tribute to him maturing. I know he used the phrase, ‘It’s humbled me.’ It’s made him appreciate things more. He’s made the most of it. That’s why we’re awful excited about the progress he’s made...He’s in much better shape now. Mentally he’s in a different place," mentioned Groce.
Unfortunately for Groce, Paul and Illinois, what transpired this weekend will be a public blackeye for the immediate future. When the news broke early Saturday morning that Paul was suspended indefinitely and sent home early from the team's European trip, it was safe to say that something bad happened. Of course college kids will be college kids and there was at least the hope that Paul did something dumb, but nothing particularly egregious. A few hours later reports landed as to why Paul was sent home and it's safe to say that that was not the case.
BREAKING: Darius Paul was arrested in Deauville, France early Friday morning; charged with vandalism, public intoxication, resisting arrest— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) August 15, 2015
Paul, who had already been suspended from the team for a prior alcohol-related arrest, now added a second one to his resume. Even worse, it happened overseas (reflecting poorly on the school/team in general) and reportedly involved Paul vandalizing cars while heavily intoxicated.
That of course puts Illinois in an even trickier spot heading into the 2015-16 season. With the team already needing to replace Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu, losing Tracy Abrams to another season-ending injury and having touted freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands suffer a stress fracture in his leg, injuries and roster turnover have quickly depleted the depth Illinois could have had this upcoming season. Mix in this development with Paul, who had a shot at starting and would have at least factored into the rotation pretty heavily, and now there's a very strong possibility that Paul has officially blown his second chance with the university. An Illini team without Paul, which originally looked to have a decent amount of depth in the frontcourt, now looks dangerously thin and in desperate need of some unproven players to step up.
Now it's probably only a matter of time before the blame starts landing on Groce, who decided to willingly give Paul a second chance.
Illinois Basketball in less than a year: 2 season-ending injuries, 3 transfers, 4 suspensions, 3 sidelined with injuries, no NCAA Tourney.— The Groce Report (@TheGroceReport) August 15, 2015
While Groce was able to overachieve on his way to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season here, he's now coming off of two disappointing seasons that ended in the NIT. With off the court issues and a decent number of transfers, the Illini program is starting to look like a bit of a hot mess. It won't matter as much if Illinois can win, but all of the recent transgressions are going to make it even more difficult for Illinois to get back to the big dance in an increasingly competitive Big Ten. If Groce's team underachieves and ends up back in the NIT (or worse) again in 2015-16, the pressure to win in 2016-17 will essentially determine if Groce can stay on as the head coach in Champaign.
In less than a month Illinois has saw their top recruit suffer a stress fracture in his leg, lost their starting point guard to a torn Achilles, got blown out by the Dutch National Team by 27 points and saw Darius Paul arrested for public intoxication and vandalism. Now two painful seasons of mediocrity have increased the pressure for Illinois to piece things together in 2015-16 or there could be some major changes in the near future.