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Are We Getting Closer?

Too many “next years” have worn on the fanbase.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It’s going to be a rough year. Some psychopath put together one of the tougher schedules in the country for a team that returned four players, and I’m not sure where they’re going to get wins from.

On the other hand, I like the infrastructure that’s in place for the future of the program, so I’m looking forward to success in the near future.

Ah, thus the Illinois basketball fan experience since Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head, and Meyers Leonard were seniors in high school.

“Yeah, it sucks now, but just wait until next year, then we’re really going to be cooking with gas!” Almost everything I’m watching now tells me that it’s going to get better, not Dee Brown and Deron Williams better, but better to a point that I’ll get to enjoy March again. The backcourt depth is awesome, and in Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin, Illinois has several underclassmen who could be potential All Big-Ten selections in the future. The Illini also have a wonderful freshman surprise in the frontcourt, where Georgi Bezhanishvilli looks like a four-year impact player.

The weirdest thing?

Everything I see tells me that it’s going to get better in the midst of the worst start (wins/losses) since the 1960’s. But how many times have I said that before? How many years have I mailed in a year with promises of recruit highlights on YouTube? I think that I know basketball pretty well, and have the ability to be objective, so have I just been wrong in prognosticating the program I know the most about? The conundrum is something that many Illini fans must be feeling at this point. It’s been so long since we’ve seen success, and we’ve been excited before, so is this finally the turning point or more of the same?

My prevailing struggle while watching every Illini basketball game is that I can longer trust my own optimism, because I’ve done this before. And it’s a rotten fan experience.

Josh Whitman and Brad Underwood have quite the challenge on their hands when fans are hesitant to trust their own eyes and ears and minds. The prolonged absence from the NCAA Tournament has me wondering what types of effects losing can have on a program and its base. A decade ago I couldn’t imagine Assembly Hall not selling out, now the open seats in State Farm Center make the Twitter rounds. Illini Inquirer reporter Derek Piper said that Underwood’s teams have lost something insane, like 10 one-possession games just seven games into his second year. Is that luck, or is this now Rutgers? And the team is so damaged from losing that it’s not going to win until something rare and special happens to turn the momentum?

I wish I had answers to all the question marks throughout this column, but candidly, that’s what this is about. There is still a lot to play out this year and into the future, and projecting future success feels so much like Groundhog Day. Any answers we find are going to have to be built around late season statistical evidence, a couple more 2019 recruiting hits, and then frankly, blind loyalty.

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