Illinois basketball’s John Groce faces rocky waters heading into season opener

(Lee News Service/ Stephen Haas)

(Lee News Service/ Stephen Haas)

Illinois head basketball coach John Groce will enter his fourth season at Illinois under difficult circumstances.

He lost two projected starters before the start of the season — Tracy Abrams to a torn ACL and Darius Paul to being kicked off the team — and has faced injuries to other key players like Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black  and Jalen Coleman-Lands to name a few.

And to add on to the pressure, Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas was fired Monday after the entire football investigation was released and Interim Barbara Wilson wanted a fresh start in the department, naming Paul Kowalczyk the interim.

So to say that Groce has this hands tied behind his back — pardon the cliche — would be an understatement. The head coach is entering a crucial year after his teams failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Many were disappointed the poor performance in the Illini’s blowout loss in the NIT opener against Alabama and didn’t think things could get worse.

But Groce knows that he can’t use injuries as excuses for this season because few will feel bad for the team. Many of the players have gone through the challenges of last season but there are many new different faces on the team. Freshmen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan are part of Groce’s best recruiting class and one that ranked at the top in the nation. Groce also added to transfers — Mike Thorne and Khalid Lewis — to help fix the gaps created from the injuries.

Despite all the additions, it will have to be Illinois’ experienced players who steal the spotlight: Malcolm Hill and Nunn. Both have taken a bigger leadership role since the start of the offseason and both will be looked upon to lead the team on the court too. Hill averaged 14.4 points per game last season and took his game to the next level.

Hill will need to step up during Nunn’s absence for the first part of the season. The junior has become the face of the program as he tries to lead a team that lacks experience in Groce’s system with so many freshmen and transfers. He’s shown he can handle difficult moments during his first two years but will need to do more with the added pressure.

Two players who should help him during the first part of the season should be Thorne and Coleman-Lands. Black is expected to play in the team’s opener against North Florida on Friday but he might not be as reliable coming back right away with the missed time to injury. Thorne is the big body that Groce has not had during his time at Illinois. Players can look into the post more now rather than trying to find gaps for the open shot like they’ve been forced to do during the past few seasons.

Coleman-Lands should also prove to be an aid to Hill. The freshman missed most of the summer due to a stress fracture in his left foot but showed little pain in Illinois’ 104-69 win over University of Illinois-Springfield. He scored 20 points and helped anchor a 17-0 run that pushed Illinois away. Groce will need more of this type of performance with Nunn’s absence, which will be missed on the offense end of the court.

It might not be the best situation for Groce but he knows he and his players need to fight through it. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the program heading into the season with the offseason changes and the changes that loom.

All Groce can hope is that the players who can play finally live up to hype of the past.