INDIANAPOLIS -- Though his job appears to be safe for at least one more season, John Groce referenced the phrase "fresh start" three times on Thursday afternoon after his Illinois Fighting Illini stunned the free-falling Iowa Hawkeyes in the No. 12-No. 5 matchup in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
It's been a rough 36 months for the former longtime assistant to Ohio State coach Thad Matta, as Groce's program, in large part due to injury attrition, has underperformed over the past three seasons. Following the Buckeyes' victory over Penn State on Thursday evening, Matta showed his support for Groce.
"There's nobody that is going to outwork John," Matta said. "There is nobody that is going to do it the right way the way John does."
Guard Tracy Abrams, the team's second-leading scorer in 2013-14, missed the past two seasons with a torn ACL and a torn Achilles. In January of 2015, guard Rayvonte Rice, the team's leading scorer in 2013-14 and 2014-15, broke his hand in January and was absent for nine games.
The injuries continued in 2015-16. After averaging over 13 points and eight rebounds per game through the Fighting Illini's first seven games, fifth-year senior center Mike Thorne Jr. tore the meniscus in his right knee in late November. Thorne Jr. returned for the team's Jan 19. encounter against Indiana, but didn't play again after that game. (The program will attempt to secure a medical hardship wavier so Thorne Jr. can suit up next season.) Second-leading scorer Kendrick Nunn was absent for seven contests this year because of a thumb injury. Forward Leron Black suffered a knee injury in December, and then was suspended indefinitely from the team in late February for allegedly pulling a knife on a nightclub bouncer. Guards Jalen Coleman-Lands (stress fracture) and Jaylon Tate (concussion) missed time earlier in the season.
"I think that John is doing a great job there," Matta said. "I have always said that [former Northwestern coach] Bill Carmody to me was maybe the most unluckiest coach I have ever seen in the Big Ten in terms of injuries and the time that the injuries happened."
Last Saturday -- the same day new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman fired football coach Bill Cubit -- Whitman offered Groce a quasi-vote of confidence, saying that Groce would "continue" as Illinois' coach. It's clear Whitman isn't afraid to act -- with former NFL coach Lovie Smith waiting in the wings, Whitman terminated Cubit during his first day on the job -- but it appears that Groce has bought himself at least another year.
It perhaps came as no surprise then that the Fighting Illini played some of their best basketball of the season -- with Friday's 89-58 setback to Purdue being the clear outlier -- after word arrived that Groce's job was secure for at least another year. And there is plenty of hope, as Illinois stands to return six of the team's top seven players in terms of minutes played in 2016-17, including Malcolm Hill, Nunn, and Coleman-Lands, the team's top three scorers this year.
"We have stayed positive through all of this. We have. And I always tell them, there's a positive dog and a negative dog inside of each of us. And the one that comes out is the one that you feed the most. And our guys have chosen to feed the positive dog," Groce said on Thursday. "And because of that, I think they have been able to persevere. And like I said earlier, I'm glad for them, more than anyone that they have been able to do that and get validation here with some good play here the last couple of days."