The 2016-17 season was the end of an era for the Illinois basketball team. However, it won’t necessarily be a fondly remembered era. The Illini went 18-14 on the season and finished ninth in the Big Ten with an 8-10 conference record.
That’s not good enough at Illinois. The university made that clear on Saturday, firing head coach John Groce after five years with the program. Groce went 95-75 overall, including 37-53 in Big Ten play, throughout his time in Champaign.
Illinois did earn a No. 2 seed in the NIT and will open the tournament by hosting seventh-seeded Valparaiso on Tuesday. Let’s take a look at how they got there.
No one really knew what to make of the Illini coming into the year. They brought back a veteran group of Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams and Maverick Morgan, but there were question marks abound after a 2015-16 season in which they went 15-19 overall, including 5-13 in conference play. There was a feeling that this would be a make or break season for Groce, who was entering his final year with his first recruiting class at Illinois.
The Illini were bringing nearly their entire roster back, with the exception of little-used guard Mike LaTulip, who moved on to Wright State as a graduate transfer. Hill was a returning second-team all-conference pick, while Abrams was returning after redshirting the last two years due to ACL and Achilles injuries. The players were familiar, but fans were waiting to see if the Illini could find a way to turn them into wins in 2016-17.
Illinois took care of business early, starting 4-0 after playing four overmatched teams at home. Their first test came when Winthrop, who eventually qualified for the NCAA Tournament, visited Champaign on Nov. 21 in part of the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Illini went toe to toe with the Eagles, but suffered an 84-80 overtime loss. The NIT Season Tip-Off continued with neutral-site games against 19th-ranked West Virginia and 25th-ranked Florida State. Illinois didn’t match up, suffering double-digit losses in both games to fall to 4-3 on the year.
But Illinois turned it around from there. The Illini closed the non-conference slate with six straight wins, including victories over North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri. That stretch suggested that the Illini should have the ability to compete throughout the Big Ten season.
Illinois opened conference play against a one-loss Maryland team that was about to be the early-season surprise of the Big Ten. The Illini were run off the floor in College Park, never leading in an 84-59 loss. Illinois had to go back to the drawing board after shooting just 35.6 percent from the field, including 18.2 percent from behind the arc.
The Illini bounced back with a win over Ohio State, then split their next two games to start 2-2 in conference play. Things went south from there, as the Illini lost three consecutive games and six of their next seven. Illinois looked to get back on track with a 68-61 win at Northwestern on Feb. 7, their only road win against an NCAA Tournament-bound opponent this season. However, they came right back and dropped a 71-67 home game at middling Penn State.
With a rather difficult stretch of games to close out February, it appeared like the Illini might just coast to the finish line. But they woke up with a 70-66 win at Iowa on Feb. 18, then picked up consecutive wins over Northwestern, Nebraska and Michigan State. It was easily Illinois’ best stretch of the season, as the Illini gave up just 60.8 points per game during the winning streak. Just when there was starting to be talk about the Illini earning an NCAA Tournament berth, they went out and did exactly what they couldn’t do, closing out the regular season with a 62-59 loss at last-place Rutgers on March 4. That left them as the ninth seed in the Big Ten Tournament and they suffered a 75-55 loss to eighth-seeded Michigan in their tournament opener.
Second-seeded Illinois meets seventh-seeded Valparaiso in the first round of the NIT Tournament, tipping off at 6:15 p.m. (CT) on Tuesday.
The Crusaders went 24-8 overall this season, including 14-4 in conference play, and shared the regular season Horizon League title with Oakland. However, the second-seeded Crusaders were taken out early in the Horizon League Tournament, running into 10th-seeded UW-Milwaukee in their opening game.
If the Illini can get by Valparaiso, they’ll meet third-seeded Utah or sixth-seeded Boise State. There could be a fun matchup ahead in the third round, as Illinois is in the same quadrant as in-state rival Illinois State. The Redbirds earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT after going 27-6 and winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title. The Illini and Redbirds haven’t met since Illinois earned a 63-59 win over Illinois State on Nov. 23, 2011.
The Illini just didn’t get it done in Groce’s final year, as his first recruiting class couldn’t do enough to get the Illini back in the tournament. It was a solid five-man class that Groce brought into the program prior to the 2013-14 season. While Austin Colbert and Kendrick Nunn didn’t end their collegiate careers in Illinois jerseys, the other three members of the class were mainstays in the Illinois lineup.
The headliner was Hill, a three-time All-Big Ten selection who was a second team pick this year and was the lone Illinois player to start all 32 games. The 6-foot-6 senior led the Illini with 16.8 points, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game, while adding 5.3 rebounds per game. Hill’s numbers dipped a bit after averaging 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists as a junior, but the Illini were forced to put a lot on Hill’s shoulders and he typically responded. Morgan, a 6-foot-10 senior, shot 55.1 percent from the field on the way to averaging 10.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Jaylon Tate, the final member of that 2013 class, averaged 2.5 points and 3.0 assists in 16.8 minutes per game as a senior.
That trio combined with Abrams to give the Illini one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten, at least at the top of the roster. The Illini weren’t sure what they’d get from Abrams this year, but he put together a solid season. The 6-foot-2 guard started 27 games, averaging 8.4 points and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 41.8 percent from behind the arc.
Groce reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season with the Illini, but the failure to never bring this group to the tournament is likely what cost him his job. While Illinois will enter next season with a lot of question marks, the new head coach will inherit a number of promising underclassmen (barring any transfers). Sophomore guard Jalen Coleman-Lands was fourth on the team with 8.0 points per game this year, making a team-high 65 3-pointers in the process. Sophomores Leron Black and Michael Finke were next on the list, scoring 7.9 points and 6.9 points per game, respectively. Those three should slot into the roles of the departed Hill, Abrams and Morgan.
Te’Jon Lucas also showed promise. The 6-foot freshman averaged 4.9 points, 2.7 assists and 1.0 steal in 19.6 minutes per game. More importantly, he looked like a solid Big Ten player when he was out there. 6-foot-6 freshman Kipper Nichols also earned a decent amount of playing time, averaging 4.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.7 minutes per game while shooting 47.8 percent from behind the arc.
With that group as the building blocks, the cupboard isn’t bare for a team that theoretically has a very fertile recruiting base. Illinois can easily be one of the better teams In the Big Ten, as they’ve shown before, but it’s going to start with putting a solid season together. Once that happens and the ball is rolling in the right direction, the Illini should be able to compete near the top of the Big Ten yearly. In the meantime, the 2016-17 season will likely serve as a frustrating reminder of a group that never truly put it together.