The calendar has turned over to 2016, and two things remain crystal clear on the University of Illinois campus: 1) there is still no athletic director at the university, and 2) the sports landscape, particularly the mens and womens basketball teams, is a figurative mess at the momenr.
As of this week, John Groce's team sits at 9-10 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten Conference while Matt Bollant's womens team is not much better, checking in at 8-10 overall and 1-6 in league play.
So, how did these teams get so dreadful? A couple of clear reasons come to mind, although the excuses are getting a bit state, but they are still valid to an extent.
For Groce, injuries have played a major part in his team's demise over the past couple seasons. Barring a miracle comeback and a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini men will miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, and Illini Nation is getting restless as a result. Yes, the injuries have been rough, but one cannot continue to dwell on those, because in basketball, like most other sports, injuries happen. Just not to the extent that Groce has seen players fall this season.
Also severely hindering Groce is the fact that he has missed on too many of the top recruits, seeing them go elsewhere to further their playing experience for the next level. So, why not Illinois, you ask? The question might be better worded as Why Illinois? With the current state of the university in flux, who in their right mind would want to come here, where coaches get turned around as quickly as the student body does? After the Illini defeated Purdue a couple of weeks ago, they laid a proverbial egg against Nebraska and then got literally destroyed against Indiana on Tuesday evening, 103-69. Has there been a lower point in Illinois athletics? Is this rock bottom? If it isn't, it's as close as many ever want to see it get.
The situation on the womens side of things isn't much better, as the Illini have fallen on hard times after getting out to a 7-1 start to the season. In his three plus seasons in Champaign, Bollant has seen more than his share of losing, something he wasn't used to at his last stop, Wisconsin-Green Bay. The Illini women, too, have has their share of injuries, as point guard Cierra Rice has been sidelined with an injury, and as soon as she was lost, the swoon seemed to begin. Added to that was the scandal involving former assistant coach Mike Divilbiss and the former players that claimed that racial bias occurred during practices the past couple of seasons. All of these things do not help a program succeed. Is this rock bottom for this program? Since the program hasn't attained the level of success that it had when Theresa Grentz was here, it's getting close, but not nearly as bad as in the Jolette Law era.
Then, we come to the football situation, which kind of directly ties into the athletic director search a little. Head coach Bill Cubit was approved by the Board of Trustees at their meeting this week, but no move was made on the AD search, which comes as no surprise to anybody. Former athletic director Mike Thomas sort of created this situation himself with the hire of Tim Beckman, who turned out to be one of the worst decisions in modern times anywhere.
Speaking of the athletic director search, there is no real concrete news to report on that, but all kinds of rumors continue to swirl around about who will be the next person to lead the athletic program. Some names of particular interest have been Rick George (current AD at Colorado), Josh Whitman (current AD at Washington University in St. Louis), Craig Tiley (former UI men's tennis coach and currently director of Tennis Australia), Sean Frazier (current AD at Northern Illinois), and Tom Michael (current AD at Eastern Illinois). All five of these potential candidates have Illinois ties, and the rumor mill has been been churning non-stop for about the past month. However, nobody knows what will truly happen, or, when it will officially occur. One thing is clear: the next AD will have some major decisions once they are in place.
Keeping on the AD search subject, when Thomas was hired, he proceeded to fire Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law after their respective seasons were concluded, and at the time, folks in Illini Nation thought that was rock bottom. With the current state of the athletic department and the shape that the state of Illinois as a whole is in, this could challenge that as the low point in the history of the department. We shall see, because the next month will be very interesting around the Urbana-Champaign campus.