Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.
Darius Paul, the younger brother of former Illinois standout Brandon Paul, used an impressive freshman season at Western Michigan in order to move on up a level to a power conference, ultimately deciding on Illinois over a slew of other schools. The thought was that John Groce would be adding a talented forward that could blossom into a potential starter, or at least a key contributor.
Things never go as planned, though, and the year Paul had to sit out for became quite problematic. After an arrest stemming from underage drinking and resisting arrest, as well as two failed drug tests, the forward was suspended for all of last season. Paul managed to stay busy, though, spending time at the John Lucas Treatment Center in Houston and wrecking havoc at the junior college level, almost averaging a double-double (17.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg) at Lamar State College - Port Arthur. As I've already written about a week ago, Groce thought that Paul had done enough to turn the page and welcomed the junior back with open arms.
Then things fell apart. Again, for the second time.
While foreign exhibition trips are usually a way to add in some extra practices and off-season games, they're also a nice reward for players that get to travel overseas and add some sight seeing to the mix. Sometimes players take advantage of this, though, and what was supposed to be a positive trip became a mess for Paul after he was arrested for vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest. Paul was reportedly intoxicated and vandalizing cars, with Groce wasting no time to send him home and suspend him indefinitely.
As reported yesterday, Illinois ultimately made the decision to dismiss the forward from the team. The news wasn't a surprise in the least, with most fans assuming it was an inevitability once the details pertaining to his arrest were released. The situation was unfortunate for Paul as he could have been primed to finally became a key player for a power conference school, but his inability to stay out of trouble became his ultimate undoing.
Of course the entire situation now becomes a noticeable issue for the Illini. On paper Darius Paul might have not been a starter, but he was expected to provide a solid amount of minutes off the bench at the four and possibly the five, helping add a considerable amount of depth to the lineup (if he wasn't able to snag a starting spot). Now with Paul out of the picture, what could have been a relatively deep frontcourt is starting to look really thin, with pressure on several underclassmen to step up in expanded roles. The loss, mixed with an injury issue to freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, as well as the Tracy Abrams injury, leaves the Illini with a relatively thin roster and the season hasn't even began yet.
Even worse is that it adds fuel to the fire when it comes to Groce's potential hot seat. He's probably fine for now, but a third season in a row without a tournament appearance would be a major setback in his position as the Illini coach. Even more so when you realize that Paul's situation isn't exactly an anomaly, with Groce suspending Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby indefinitely last February, with Cosby leaving the team less than a month later. A recent run of transfers and suspensions is starting to stain Groce's resume and it's starting to look like he'll need to right the ship in the near future or he could be on his way out. With the university already dealing with issues pertaining to their women's basketball and football programs, the last thing they want is the men's basketball team to be adding to the negative headliners penned about the university.
As for Paul's loss now, the Illini will once again be forced to deal with a thin and inexperienced frontcourt. That means there's going to be a lot of pressure on Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne Jr., who will need to anchor the frontcourt and attempt to replace Nnanna Egwu. Past Thorne, though, is little used backup center Maverick Morgan, redshirt freshman Michael Finke and most noticeably sophomore Leron Black. The 6'7" forward added 5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season, but he'll need to have a big season to help carry the frontcourt. Even more so if Thorne struggles with the increase in competition in the Big Ten. The loss of Paul is detrimental because there really isn't a proven option on the bench and Illinois has had bad luck with injuries as of late, meaning if one of these guys gets banged up the results could be catastrophic.
So the Paul suspension and dismissal was a mess all around for Illinois. On one hand it is an actual blow to the team and the talent at hand. On the other hand, the fact that Paul got in trouble for a similar crime after Groce took him back is a bad look for the head coach, while the headlines are another negative story related to the Illinois athletic department.
While Groce hit the ground running when he arrived in Champaign, things have taken a drastic turn since the Illini reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season. Now the program is starting to tread water and needs a spark or else the Illini could soon be irrelevant in the Big Ten.