Don't forget that this basketball season began with a 13-2 record and a 2-0 conference record. Don't forget that.
Don't forget that we beat Missouri either. Or that Rayvonte Rice was a machine. Or that things were humming, or that we were ranked, or that we were playing well, or any of that. Remember it all, because as consoled as I am by the NIT, I know this season could have gone a different way. I saw the performances down the stretch and I know that Illinois is a tournament team.
Where did it all go awry?
The blotch on our schedule first catches your eye. It's red and big, stretching from early January into February. It's a block quote that reads:
The eight game losing streak in January required that requisite four lines of text. It was awful. Every few days, I'd slump my shoulders and sadly walk to a TV, watch Illinois lose, type some sort of either resigned or angered recap, then go about my business. The losing streak was a historic low for the program--a point discussed here. Certainly the eight game losing streak is what derailed the season.
Let's look at the footage.
That game marked the second game of the losing streak, which definitively made it a losing streak, and more damning, embarrassed the program. Northwestern was, and is, awful. Travel back, reread these bits from the recap and feel the pain that was pulsing through my fingers at that time.
There's no overcoming this.
This is a joke. A mean joke. A personal joke that hurts your feelings, and gets the whole Big Ten class to point and laugh, while you run away and never come back. We just called the teacher "Mom." We showed up to school naked.
The game ended 49-43 and was only that high scoring due to a barrage of offense near the end of the game. Tracy Abrams led the team with 13 points, while no other Illini got into double digits. Rayvonte Rice scored only eight points on 2-of-11 FG and, worse, he hurt his adductor, which hampered him for basically all of January. We were left with hurt pride and a hurt star player, and it took six weeks to recover from both.
This team can win basketball games--they've shown that. They can beat good teams. They should have beat Michigan, and they should be in the NCAA Tournament, where they'd beat other good teams. But what they don't have is the intestinal fortitude or mental toughness or whatever you want to call it that allows you to take your lumps and not sulk around losing for a month. If Illinois were a golfer, they'd birdie the first two holes, take a double-bogey on the third, break their putter over their knee, then bogey the rest of the course.
Northwestern, you're a damn bogey, and you tanked this team. If Illinois wins that Northwestern game and the following Purdue game, then the resume would look like this (compared with NC State and Xavier, the last two at-large teams to make the NCAA field):
|Losses vs. RPI 100+||1||3||3|
|Wins vs. RPI top 50||4 (1 vs. top 25)||3 (1 vs. top 25)||4 (2 vs. top 25)|
|Wins vs. RPI top 100||7||6||9|
|Strength of Schedule||37||23||40|
That's adding only wins against Northwestern and Purdue, and in that hypothetical, Illinois has the single best win of any of those teams--at a healthy Michigan State. What could have been, I guess. When we look back at the season, that Northwestern game has to stand out. It changed the whole vibe of the year. It drained every bit of confidence.
I hate Northwestern.