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A look at the worst seasons in Illinois basketball history

The Illini have not started well this season, but where does it stand all time?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Illinois went 0-8 to start Big Ten play…..was the 1906-1907 season, the program’s second year of existence.

Let that sink in for a moment.

It has been 111 years since the Illini had an 0-8 start to Big Ten play, although 0-8 was an entire season of Big Ten basketball back then. And the conference was still called the Western Conference. And the team, coached by Frank L. Pickney, finished the season 1-10 overall, with its lone win being over the Peoria YMCA team, by a margin of 38-19.

(Ahh, yes, the national powerhouse at the Peoria Y.)

After that dreadful Sophomore Slump, the Illini had 19 seasons of success, including a fantastic 1914-15 season, where the Illini would go 16-0 overall and 12-0 in conference play.

Then there was the 1927-28 season….

The Illini finished the year 5-12 overall, but had a measly 2-10 Big Ten record. They started the season going 3-2 in non-conference play, although this included playing Washington — at Washington — three times in four days to close out the non-conference schedule.

When it came to Big Ten play, the Illini lost their first two games to Purdue and Iowa. But then the Illini made the trip up to Madison and beat Wisconsin in what was likely a nail-biter, 34-33. The Illini finished the season winning only one more game, but their longest stretch of losses was still only at seven games.

It took 10 more years before the Illini had another disappointing season (1937-38). Their overall record was 9-9, and they finished Big Ten play at 4-8. This team is mostly being included because its captain was Lou Boudreau, MLB Hall of Famer. Overall, this team didn’t lose more than four games in a row at any time in the season.

Illinois decided to not be bad in 1947-48 apparently, but their pattern of being bad in seasons ending with ___7-_8 continued in 1957-58, when the team went 11-11 overall, but managed to have just a 5-9 Big Ten record. They went 6-1 in non-conference play, including a notable win over No. 14 Rice. However, the team could not find its groove in Big Ten play, failing to win back-to-back games at any point in the season.

It only took two more seasons for the Illini to have one of their worst seasons ever.

They finished the year at 9-15, and secured a 5-9 record in Big Ten play. The Illini didn’t play a single ranked opponent in non-conference play, but struggled mightily and finished with a 3-6 record. The Illini started off Big Ten play 1-2, with the two losses coming on the road to No. 1 Ohio State and No. 6 Iowa. After the loss to Iowa, the Illini strung together four straight wins, to even their overall record at 8-8. However, they won just one game the rest of the season and finished with a dreadful 9-15 overall record.

The 1970-71 team finished the year at 11-12 overall, but had just a 5-9 record in Big Ten play. This season is particularly interesting to look at as the Illini had a 5-2 non-conference record and started the season 9-3. Then they lost eight straight Big Ten games. They managed a victory in their last game of the season to stop the losing skid at eight, but the damage had been done, and their fate sealed.

Then there was the 1973-74 team. What may be one of, if not the worst, Illinois team of all-time. They finished the season with a 5-18 overall record and went 2-12 in Big Ten play. At one point in the season they lost 11 straight games, with nine of those being Big Ten games. The season was summed up with wins over Tulane, Detroit, Northern Michigan, OSU and Iowa. After this absolutely awful season, the Illini fired head coach Harv Schmidt, hiring a man by the name of Gene Bartow.

In his first — and only — season, Bartow went 8-18, with a 4-14 Big Ten record. Overall this season was fairly uneventful, but notable for the fact that Bartow lasted only one season in Champaign. After the 1974-75 campaign, Bartow was offered the job at UCLA, where John Wooden had just retired.

It was this point in Illini history that they hired a coach named Lou Henson, so we have to fast forward a little bit to find another bad season….all the way to 1998-99, Lon Kruger’s third season at the helm. His team went 14-18 overall, but went just 5-13 in Big Ten play, including a seven-game losing streak at the start, saved from being eight games by a 61-59 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. This team also got HOT in the Big Ten Tournament, making it to the championship game, only to lose to MSU.

Finally, we have 2007-08. The Illini finished 16-19, but went just 5-13 in Big Ten play. Much like 98-99, Illinois was a sub-par team during Big Ten play, but somehow turned it all the way up to 11 during the Big Ten Tournament. Once again, the Illini inexplicably made the championship game, only to lose 61-48 to Wisconsin.

So what is the takeaway?

  1. The Illini love to be bad in years that end in ___7-_8.
  2. Maybe Illinois will make the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
  3. But overall, this stretch of Big Ten games is something we have only seen twice before in Champaign, and that is not a good sign. But it is also a reminder that the Illini have historically been a very good program and are on a path to success, even though times may seem bleak right now.