Illinois fans are a scared bunch. Like a group of stray kittens, we tend to shudder at the first sign of adversity. Loud noises, new situations, even bright lights send us scurrying to comfort.
We want to be the best. Illinois fans know the mountaintop we came plummeting down. One of the top men’s college basketball programs in the country, consistent NCAA Tournament appearances, Big Ten Tournament championships, a bitter National Championship runner-up, a span of four Big Ten Regular Season Championships in five years — the list goes on.
Illinois Basketball was one of, if not the pinnacle program in the Big Ten. After the end of the Bruce Weber era and the John Groce era, Illinois fans are rightfully irked, confused, distraught, burdened and any other adjective you can surmise to describe angst. Illinois has always been a basketball school, and while many of us yearn for the football program to get back to some sort of national relevance — I believe that is in the works, but it is still a ways off — basketball is where our hearts lie.
Over the past week, the Illini have found new and mind numbing ways to lose games. Three straight losses. Three straight games this squad could have and SHOULD HAVE won. Wake Forest, Northwestern and now Maryland: all losses that could haunt the Illini throughout the season. Now, that is not to say that this team did not have some fight. The Maryland comeback was absolutely amazing. Nobody, including myself, saw that coming. Northwestern and Wake are two games the Illini led and failed to hold on to the win.
The question becomes for fans where do we go from here? A team that was sitting at 6-0 and likely should be 9-0 and getting some actual discussion about a potential ranking now sits at 6-3 and is in dire need of a leader on the court.
Coach Underwood, who coaches with passion and heart every single play, understands where this program is at. He sees that there is a lack of a leader on the court. Underwood said after the Maryland loss that “they have to get out of their own way”, citing that the team plays with fear late in the game. Underwood has already referenced on multiple occasions the culture of losing that permeates the locker room. This is a team that has spent a lot of time losing and it has begun to seep into their mindset and gameplay.
So, as fans, where do we go?
What do we do?
Is all hope lost for the NCAA Tournament at 6-3? Are we now, nine games into a 31 game schedule, already assuming that there is no chance to make the dance? The season is far from over, yet many are ready to jump ship.
Last season, Brad Underwood was coaching a 6-2 Oklahoma State team that would go on to lose 6 straight conference games, yet found a way in the end to make the NCAA Tournament. Brad Underwood will not let this team roll over and die, and neither should the fan base.
Watching that comeback Sunday night that fell oh so short, I find it hard to remember a time in recent memory where the State Farm Center was that loud, that deafening. That is what Illinois Basketball is. You, the fan, in all its glory. Your orange wig and Flying Illini shirts. That is what makes this team go.
If this game was at Maryland, I do not believe that Illinois would have been able to come back at all. That is the difference Underwood makes as a coach. The halftime adjustments made all the difference in the world.
I’m not saying that this team is destined to make the NCAA Tournament. I am saying, however, that before we all assume the sky is falling nine games into the season, we stop to take a look around.
This is a team that is learning a completely new system. A suffocating defense that is a turnover forcing machine, a high-tempo offense that likes to run the ball, a coaching staff that understands how to play to the strengths of its roster and make adjustments to fix what is going wrong.
This program is headed back to the mountaintop, maybe not today, but soon. As fans, all we can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. We are in good hands, and the fruits of our misery will soon be an afterthought.