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Illinois critics need to realize things are looking good in the long term

Illinois head coach John Groce yells his players during first half an NCAA basketball game against Illinois-Chicago Chicago Saturday Dec.

Illinois head coach John Groce yells to his players during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Illinois-Chicago in Chicago, Saturday, Dec., 28, 2013. Illinois won 74-60. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

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Updated: March 3, 2014 5:06PM

Back in the heady days of early January, when Illinois had cracked the top 25 and we had no idea that Chicago would be subjected to multiple polar vortexes, I was thinking John Groce was just the right guy for Illinois.

He runs good stuff. He knows how to recruit. He has the required over-the-top work ethic. Even his orange-sportcoat homage to Lou Henson fits just right.

On top of all that, he had the Illini — who came tantalizingly close to the Sweet 16 last March — tracking for a second straight overachieving season.

Even though icy shooting has plunged Illinois into a six-game (and counting) skid, I still like Groce’s long-term prospects for putting the fight back in the Illini.

You’re only going to go so far with three players who have Big Ten experience, an all-freshman bench and only one player who comfortably answers to the description ‘‘scorer.’’

In a Big Ten that’s as top-to-bottom tough as it’s been for a long, long time, there are going to be growing pains with a group like that.

The gloom-and-doomers are going to see a team that faces an uphill battle to make the NIT and they’re right. At this point, that would be an achievement.

Considering that Illinois was 13-2 and ranked 23rd a few weeks ago, that’s kind of hard to swallow now.

That said, it would be a mistake to think Groce isn’t building a solid foundation.

This is not the situation Illinois was in the last time it lost six straight in February 2012, when Bruce Weber was on the brink of being fired.

It is more like January of 1999, the last time Illinois lost seven straight — a number it could reach when it plays host to No. 15 Iowa on Saturday. That was Lon Kruger’s third season. Just as the recruiting downturn in transition from Lou Henson caught up with Kruger, the recruiting falloff that greased Weber’s departure is catching up with Groce.

In 1998-99, when Illinois finished 14-18, 3-13 in the Big Ten, Kruger had four freshmen — Cory Bradford, Lucas Johnson, Robert Archibald and Damir Krupalija —who wound up helping Bill Self win back-to-back Big Ten titles.

This year’s freshmen class — Kendrick Nunn, Maverick Morgan, Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill and Austin Colbert — also will benefit from learning under fire. Even key juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu are going to be better next year after shouldering big loads this season.

That may not ease the frustration of Illini followers who expected more this winter. But this is a time for development.

Not only is everyone back next year except for Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, but three transfers who are sitting out all figure to be significant players next year.

When Ahmad Starks, a 5-9 transfer from Oregon State, was denied his application to play this season, Illinois lost the quality three-point shooter who would have provided a scoring complement to Rayvonte Rice.

Aaron Cosby, a 6-3 guard who averaged 12.6 points at Seton Hall last fall, also will bring offense to a team that’s shooting 36 percent (11th) in Big Ten play, including 26 percent on three-pointers (also 11th). And Brandon Paul’s 6-8 brother, Darius, will bring some much-needed frontcourt depth from Western Michigan.

Two incoming freshmen — Leron Black, a 6-7 top-50 recruit, and 6-9 Champaign Centennial product Michael Finke — will give Groce and his staff even more options.

In short, this may be a winter of discontent. But there’s a lot to like about where the program is headed for those who have the vision to see down the road.

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