The John Groce era at Illinois hasn't gone exactly to plan and the reality is things continue to get worse and worse for the embattled head coach. The former Ohio head coach, who led the Bobcats to the NCAA Tournament in two of his last three seasons, wasn't supposed to achieve much in his debut season in Champaign. Instead he coached the Illini to the NCAA Tournament and almost upset the two seeded Miami Hurricane in the Round of 32. Heightened expectations the next two seasons didn't pan out as the Illini landed in the NIT in back-to-back seasons and things didn't look much better heading towards 2015-16.
That was before the team had to deal with the loss of point guard Tracy Abrams due to injury and the dismissal of Darius Paul, who was kicked off the team after his arrest overseas during their exhibition trip. Mix that with a laundry list of injury and depth issues, something that continued throughout the season, and Illinois struggled mightily on their way to a 15-19 record, the least amount of wins in a season since 1998-99 when Lon Kruger was still the coach.
Luckily for John Groce, new athletic director Josh Whitman has already announced that Groce will return for 2016-17, because recent events in Champaign have somehow taken another turn for the worse. Paul's arrest and dismissal in August was pretty bad as is, especially since it was his second chance with the team, but since then the program has seen Leron Black, Jaylon Tate and now Kendrick Nunn all end up getting arrested over the last two months.
Nunn, the most recent arrested member of the Fighting Illini, is particularly troubling for the program. While it's never great to see your team's players end up getting arrested, Nunn was hands down one of the most important players on the Illini roster and the combination of Nunn and Malcolm Hill is going to be incredibly crucial if Illinois wants to return to the postseason next season. Considering all of the recent arrests, lack of success and the turmoil within the athletic department (as well as the fact that new AD Josh Whitman didn't hire Groce) and the reality is Whitman will likely only give the coach another season to turn things around. If the program ends up being forced to move on from Nunn, that could be another crippling blow for an Illinois team that has repeatedly tripped over their own feet time and time again.
For everything that went wrong this past season, Nunn's continued improvement has been huge for Illinois. This past season the junior posted career highs in points (15.5 ppg), rebounds (5.0 rpg), steals (1.5 spg) and three point shooting percentage (39.1%). When everything was said and done, Nunn and Hill were the two predominant scorers, with the only other players averaging double figures besides them being a three-point specialist (Jalen Coleman-Lands) and Mike Thorne, who only played in eight games this year.
So when all is said and done, losing Nunn might be too much if Illinois wants to return to form next season. And the reality is that's a potential reality, especially with the news that the school has indefinitely suspended Kendrick Nunn. In case you missed it, the Illinois guard was arrested last week after allegedly striking a woman in her apartment and was charged with domestic battery. With Nunn's recent arrest and suspension, one has to wonder if Groce may chose to simply move on, especially after the second chance he gave Paul blew up in his face this summer. Josh Whitman was brought in as athletic director for Illinois mainly because of the absolute mess the program has been in and one has to wonder how much patience he will have for a struggling coach, so Groce is going to be walking a tight rope regardless of if he got the support of the AD earlier in the month.
While it'll be interesting to see how the Nunn case plays out and if the guard can get back in to good standing with the program, the recent arrests definitely put Groce on the hot seat and create little room for error. Numerous sites, including SB Nation's the Champaign Room, have started raising the question of if the program should move on from the coach. Considering the marquee football hire Whitman was able to land, one also has to wonder if the team could find someone else to achieve more success. Injuries are unfortunate and can derail a season very easily, so it's hard to blame Groce for the team's horrendous luck on that front. The problem is the two seasons prior to 2015-16 that were full of underachieving, followed by a year littered with arrests, suspensions and no guarantee of an improvement in 2016-17 has plenty of Illinois fans up in arms.
The off-season heading into this season was an absolute mess for the Illini and so far the beginning of the 2016 off-season seems to be starting off in exactly the same manner.