Are we in the home stretch of Illinois’ basketball season yet? I’d look up the team’s remaining schedule, but the inspiration escapes me.
The Illini are so far removed from playing games that have actual meaning, and have been for so long, that many — most? — of us simply have stopped paying attention.
OK, I’ll cop to having watched the team’s most recent game, Sunday night’s 69-60 defeat at Wisconsin. Look, I’m not proud of it, but what’s done is done.
And speaking of done, how ’bout that John Groce?
Actually, it’s too soon to say Groce will be gone after four mostly disappointing — mostly very disappointing — seasons at the wheel of the progam. There’s a brand-new athletic director in Champaign, Josh Whitman, and he may choose to take a look-see for himself over a full season.
That would give Groce a fifth, surely make-or-break campaign. With the Illini about to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row, there can’t possibly be any more rope for Groce than that.
Frankly, I’ll be surprised if there’s even that much rope. Three weeks from now, we could be talking about Whitman’s search for Groce’s successor.
TOP 25 TALK
A funny thing happened, by the way, during the aforementioned defeat at Wisconsin. It wasn’t “ha ha” funny, but more like “what’s he smoking?” funny. For reasons apparent to only him, Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin surmised that the Illini — if healthy — will be a Top 25 team next season.
Yes, in basketball.
My only question: Why in the world would such a thing happen?
For an indication of where Illinois is as a program, consider that the latest loss was its 10th in a row in head-to-head meetings with the Badgers, the last seven of which have come on Groce’s watch. Under Groce, the Illini are 28-40 in Big Ten games. They were under .500 in league play even in Groce’s debut season, when they barely scraped into the NCAA tourney.
Groce’s teams haven’t noticeably improved over the courses of seasons. Many of his players have come along slowly, if at all, and even his best ones — juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn — have fallen short of Groce’s demands for consistency and, at times, leadership.
There are no instant answers in the recruiting pipeline, and a trend — hardly an epidemic, but a trend — of player misbehavior continued last week when sophomore forward Leron Black, a former key recruit, was arrested, accused of threatening a nightclub bouncer with a knife.
And next season is when the magical transformation occurs? That’s awfully hard to believe.
B1G COACH OF THE YEAR
A radio host asked me this week whom I see as being most deserving of Big Ten coach of the year honors, and I’ll admit I was stumped.
For the longest time, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery was the obvious answer; he was a front-runner for national coach of the year honors. But the Hawkeyes have dropped three of their last seven league games after a 7-0 start, and the remaining four regular-season contests could easily include a couple of losses.
If Iowa finishes atop the standings, McCaffery will be the man. But I’m leaning toward Tom Crean of Indiana, whose team probably has a slightly better shot to win the league. The Hoosiers are in first place at the tail end of February despite having been without injured James Blackmon Jr., one of the best guards in the league, since December. That’s impressive.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 1 Villanova at No. 5 Xavier (Wednesday, 6 p.m., FS1): The Wildcats have a two-game lead in the Big East standings and can put the Musketeers away with a second head-to-head victory this season, but the roof will be ready to come off at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati. Tough, tough place to play.
No. 9 Arizona at No. 22 Utah (Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN): Somebody has to win the Pac-12, right? Half a game separates the first-place Wildcats and the Utes, with Oregon and California still very much in contention. Great matchup of big men, with Arizona’s Ryan Anderson and Utah’s Jakob Poeltl among the best in the country.
No. 7 North Carolina at No. 3 Virginia (Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN): The Tar Heels are in the driver’s seat in the ACC, but five different teams are within two games of them in the standings. The regular-season finale at Duke already is looming large, but this visit to Charlottesville could be even less pleasant than that.
Up: Villanova and Xavier. The Wildcats and Musketeers have won a combined 10 in a row, with all 10 games decided by double digits. Don’t you dare doubt the Big East.
Down: Stanford. Two years ago, the Cardinal reached the Sweet 16. Last year, they at least won the NIT. Now they’re 13-12, Johnny Dawkins’ program having come all the way back down to earth. It’s never easy to sustain hoops success in Palo Alto.
Up: Yale. With a one-game lead in the Ivy League — whose regular-season winner gets the conference’s only automatic bid —the better-than-you’d-think Bulldogs are smelling their first NCAA Tournament since 1962.
Down: Gonzaga. A second loss to Saint Mary’s on Sunday left the Bulldogs in double danger — of failing to win the West Coast Conference for only the second time this century, and of failing to reach the NCAA tourney for the first time since the previous century.
29-0: That’s the combined home records of Indiana and Iowa this season. It’s no wonder the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes are the top two teams in the Big Ten standings.
80: Distance, in feet, of the halftime buzzer beater hit by Vanderbilt’s Josh Henderson in Tuesday’s victory at Florida.
18.6, 6.7, 3.4: Those are the season averages in points, rebounds and assists for Illinois’ Malcolm Hill — all team highs. Perhaps his motor could run a bit higher from time to time, but he’s sure not the reason the Illini are losing.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.