Picking up the pieces


The story Illini-Nation.com broke this morning was confirmed during basketball coach John Groce’s press conference at noon today.

Senior guard Rayvonte Rice has indeed broken his left hand and is scheduled for surgery tomorrow. This is yet another crushing blow dealt to the Illini, who lost PG Tracy Abrams for the year due to an ACL injury in the offseason. With Rice out for at least six weeks, who needs to step up the most to fill in the void left by the star player?

My answer: John Groce. Simply put, no one playing for the Illini can replicate or replace what Rice does on the floor. As Groce put it in his presser, “(Rice) is a monster.”

Rice leads the team in scoring, rebounding, is third in assists and is the undisputed team leader on the floor. Granted, it will take a team effort to make up for the hole Rice will leave in his absence, and that is precisely where Groce will need to make the difference.

Groce can recruit. Groce can create enthusiasm. Groce can present a clear vision. He is an excellent spokesman of the program. But can he coach?

Groce is undefeated in non-conference play in the month of November, but is an abysmal 3-15 in the month of January and 15-23 in B1G play as I’m writing this. The lack of defense and toughness the Illini have displayed in the past two games has been hard to ignore. However, Groce’s teams the last two years have come on strong down the stretch. There is no time for that now. Whatever mojo he’s worked with past teams down the stretch must now be on full display starting Wednesday.

Groce’s motto of “Toughness and Togetherness” has never rang more true. The Illini have lost their star player and now must play tougher and more together than ever before . . . or else it is going to get ugly really quick. As weird as it may sound, the Illini can use Rice’s injury as a rallying cry of sorts to prove their toughness and that one player is not greater than the sum of their parts. Next man up.

So can Groce coach? Absolutely. But he will have to be the best he has ever been to salvage this season and achieve the goal of every season, which is making the NCAA tourney. Can he do it? Very doubtful. Not many coaches would be able to, but he won’t make excuses and that is admirable. It will be a tough road, but I’m pulling for him. Sometimes adversity is what you need to become successful.

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