It's somewhat easy to forget, but the prevailing thought throughout the Illini community was that we'd be pretty okay with an NIT berth this year. Not thrilled, but definitely understanding. This was going to be the rough year of the burgeoning John Groce Dynasty. The bench full of freshmen would take their lumps and grow into a cohesive unit that would ultimately support whatever young stud Groce landed on the recruiting trail. There was a plan and it was clear and we all bought in.
But then the team went 11-2 in the non-conference schedule with close losses to Georgia Tech and Oregon. The loss to the Yellowjackets would hurt, but there's no shame in losing to this year's Ducks. And the team finally beat Missouri, bringing the Braggin' Rights Trophy back home to Champaign. Hopes had been raised. Two conference wins to start the season established a high watermark of 13-2. Making the NIT was no longer good enough. This was a good enough Illini squad to make it to the big dance and maybe even sneak past the first round.
Things fell apart though. Quentin Snider decommitted. Cliff Alexander chose Kansas. And then the eight game losing streak. It felt like Bruce Weber's final season all over again, but without his raspy voice. Things were terrible and it looked like we'd maybe be going to the CBI if we were lucky.
But the team started winning again. Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Kendrick Nunn all started coming into their own. Nnanna Egwu continued to quietly be the player the team is built upon. Rayvonte Rice stopped completely being a hobbled revenant. And now the team is right where they were supposed to be back in the fall: comfortably sitting in the back half of the conference standings, waiting on their NIT invite.
More than a handful of #AskTCR questions asked about how this season changed our perceptions of John Groce, but the more I think about it, the less my perception has changed. Look more closely at the stretch that defined this season. Six of the eight games in the losing streak were games the Illini should have lost. And they did. Only three of the losses were blowouts. I'm sorry, but being blown out by Wisconsin twice and Michigan State once isn't the end of the world. The losses against Purdue and Northwestern hurt. But those are things we all knew were going to happen. This was a 20 win team at best this year.
Things fell apart, but the team responded exactly how you'd want them to. The youth has improved. Talented reinforcements arrive next season via recruits and transfers. This current group gets at least four more games to work things out. No one writes poems or movies about people who merely meet expectations, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. The 2013-14 Illini basketball team is exactly where we thought they would be. And the future still looks pretty damn bright.
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