A new era of Illinois basketball begins tonight at Assembly Hall when Illinois opens up the 2012-13 regular season against the Colgate Raiders. For Illinois, it is the beginning of the John Groce era.
After Illinois finished with yet another disappointing season last year under former head coach Bruce Weber, the Illini had to make a change in coaches. So they fired Weber, who now is the head coach at Kansas State, and hired Groce. Groce last year led Ohio to the Sweet 16.
The major problem at Illinois under Weber was the development of the players and the inability to take the next step. Ever since Illinois went 37-2 in 2005 under Weber, the team has gone downhill. They have recruited very poorly, missing out on big time Illinois high school players such as Derrick Rose and now likely missing out on Jabari Parker, and even the players they have recruited, they have not developed.
Weber did a good job of getting his players into the rotation as underclassmen to get them valuable playing time, but as those players progressed into juniors and seniors they did not take the Illini deep into the NCAA Tournament. The current senior class, led by Tyler Griffey, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, massively underachieved last year as juniors, and now as seniors the program is in a rebuilding year, unlikely to have a great season.
John Groce's job is to end these trends. The Illini have star underclassmen once again this season. Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are just some of these players. They have commitments from some top recruits who will be joining the team next year, and they are already hotly pursuing some of the nation's top players who are currently juniors in high school.
Was Illinois' problem under Weber underachieving or a lack of talent?
Groce will turn things around in Champaign, but fans want a contender now and Groce wants to give them one.
Groce's system is going to be based off of athleticism. It will be an up-tempo style of play much like what fans saw with Ohio in the NCAA Tournament last year. The style of play should fit Illinois perfectly. It will give Paul and Richardson opportunities to slash in towards the basket and score at the rim, something that the Illini were very effective at last year.
Hopefully, that style of offense can make the seniors take the next step. Paul and Richardson are both extremely talented guards, and fans could not help but think that these players, along with players before them, did not play up to their full potential under Coach Weber. We saw last year's Illinois team take Missouri down to the wire. We saw them beat Ohio State and Michigan State. Two years ago we saw them beat North Carolina. We have also seen them lose to Illinois-Chicago, Penn State and other less than stellar teams.
We know the potential is there, but the consistency has not been. That is something that Groce will expect from his team. Last year, Groce won 29 games with the Ohio Bobcats because they consistently brought their best game to the court each night.
If Groce can get his players to play consistently, maybe this will not be a rebuilding year. Maybe he can get this talented team to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.
The journey for Groce as head coach of the Illini begins Friday night, and Illinois fans hope that a National Championship will be part of the John Groce era.