From here on out, I would like to propose that we, the Illini faithful, no longer acknowledge the existence of That Northwestern Game.
That was quite possibly the worst game of basketball I have ever seen in my entire life. It was close at the end, which made it somewhat interesting, but the last two minutes could not even come close to overcoming the unbelievable brick-fest that took place during the previous 38. Watching that game was like watching paint dry, except the paint sporadically chipped off, sending jagged pieces flying into your eyes and rendering you permanently blind. The helplessness of the Illini as they continued to hoist up seemingly endless missed layups and jump shots was somewhat horrifying. Those of you who are thinking: "Okay, come on. It wasn't that bad." You are wrong. It was that bad. So bad that Izzo theorized it may still be affecting the team after last night's loss:
Izzo: Illinois just going through tough stretch. NW game hurts. But they'll bounce back.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) January 19, 2014
That Northwestern Game needs to be forgotten. Purdue and Michigan St. should probably be pushed out of our memories as well. Coming out of these three games without a single win may very well have ended our hopes of a bid in the NCAA tournament. If it's not gone yet, it certainly doesn't seem like we're playing well enough to earn a bid later this year.
I've been a Chicago Cubs fan my entire life and, sad as this may be, it has taught me a whole lot about managing my expectations. If it becomes clear by July that the Cubbies don't have enough to contend for a playoff appearance (this happens a lot), I completely change the way I root for and think about the team. This is the type of thought process that Illinois fans may want to consider booting up after the last couple of losses. No matter how well Illinois started the year, it's already become clear that it's going to be really, really hard for this team to make the field of 68. It'll probably require a couple of huge upsets over top Big Ten teams like Wisconsin, Iowa, or Ohio St. If that is unattainable, then it will require an extremely deep run in the Big Ten Tournament. Given their performance in Big Ten play thus far, it is hard to believe the Illini are capable of this, and it certainly should not be expected of them. There's still plenty of time left to turn the season around, but it doesn't seem premature to say that isn't likely.
However, there is a silver lining wrapped around the nearly-crushed dreams of Illini fans and players. Now that we can somewhat confidently say that the tournament is unlikely, we may begin to look elsewhere for our optimism. As I mentioned before, this is when personal experience rooting for a seemingly-cursed team comes in handy. When the Cubs suck, I completely stop worrying about the Win/Loss results of games. Unless it's an exciting victory, it's best to just ignore the final scores. I begin to focus solely on the development of the players and the future of the franchise. I look at potential free agent targets for the next season, which players I wouldn't like to remain with the team (also known as the Carlos Marmol All-Stars), and whether or not I like the current manager.
It's certainly not the ideal way to root for your team. Everybody wants to root for a team like the St. Louis Cardinals, who have both the best farm system and a pro team that has been good seemingly every year in the history of the universe (ugh.). But given the circumstances, consider this: Would you rather remain blindly optimistic and confident in the Illini for every game this year, living and dying with every ill-advised Nnanna Egwu three in the final minutes of a loss? Or, would you rather enjoy observing the steps young players like Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate are taking as they try to improve their skills? Even Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan were heavily involved against MSU. It might be more worthwhile to follow their progress as the year goes on, and use those observations to shape a more informed opinion regarding the ability of John Groce to develop his young guys. Once again, I'm in no way saying fans should give up on the Illini this year and not get excited if/when they play well, but before getting upset about a tough loss, of which we've already seen several, it might benefit fans to put things in perspective and think more about the state of the program as a whole. It may not have shown up on the court quite yet, but there could be some very good days ahead for the Illini.
Looking into the future, Illinois has quite a few young prospects who may be on their way soon to help the team. Four-star forward and 2014 commit Leron Black will bring a strong physical presence and an ability to rebound the ball that the Illini could certainly use (the last two games have been U-G-L-Y on the boards). Transfer student Aaron Cosby shot 40 percent from three for Seton Hall in his sophomore year, and he'll be able to play next year.
Related: Illinois is shooting right around 40 percent from inside the arc thus far in Big Ten play. JFG has also already locked up two 2015 four-star recruits, SF D.J. Williams and the top secret spy of Tim Beckman, SG Aaron Jordan.
I-L-L-I-N-I pic.twitter.com/VA3QZgAdPN— Aaron Jordan (@OnMyGrind_22) January 18, 2014
If Groce could steal a five-star power forward like Cleveland's Carlton Bragg or Elijah Thomas of Lancaster, Texas, then things could get really interesting. Illinois is also one of the top three programs in contention for two great guards, 2015 five-star SG Charles Matthews and 2015 four-star PG Jalen Brunson. These are all outstanding players, and even just one coming to Illinois would be amazing. Compiling all of these potential Illini into one place makes the state of the program seem a great deal less bleak, doesn't it?
Illinois is not playing well right now, and they probably won't play all that well for the rest of the year. But there are reasons to be excited, and it would help your blood pressure to focus less on the success of the team this year, and more on what the future could hold. That doesn't mean you have to give up entirely and stop watching the Illini this season, but it would behoove you to watch them with a different purpose in mind. John Groce is still working his way towards putting the Illini back in the national spotlight, but it seems the project is still a year or two away from completion, if things go according to plan. Illinois has already pulled in several talented recruits under JFG. They'll be in contention for some of the best in the country in the near future. I truly could not be more excited to see what this team can do in the next few years.
Still a lot of time left, but if you’re looking at the best #B1G team the Illini could beat, it’s likely Ohio State w/roughly a 29-26 final.— Matt Silich (@msilich2) January 19, 2014
As for this year, I'm not going to completely rule out a win or two at home over the best teams in the Big Ten (Just look how optimistic I am in the tweet above!). I'm also not going to be wringing my hands over some of the tough games this team will inevitably encounter during their Big Ten gauntlet. These Illini will have ups and downs the rest of the way, likely resulting in being left on the outskirts of the bubble when it comes to tournament time. How you handle the tough start of the conference season is entirely up to you, but I'm going to use it as motivation to look forward to what seems to be a really bright future.
Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_Room and Like us on Facebook. You can follow Matt Silich on Twitter at @msilich2.
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