“2-11,” my father said, looking at the Big Ten standings on the screen. “What has happened to Illinois athletics?”
Well, Dad, that’s not a simple question to answer. I, along with just about any Illini fan who pays a bit of attention, could talk for hours about Mike Thomas’ hires and how football and basketball have gone from bad to worse even since Beckman and Groce have been let go. That’s a reality, but it’s one that gets discussed a bit too much.
Right now, Illinois basketball is 12-14 on the year and has only beaten Indiana and Rutgers in the conference. I never would have imagined it could be this bad before the season began. I tend to be overly optimistic, so it only makes sense that I’m this disappointed.
This Penn State game, where the Illini absolutely collapsed in the second half, sums up the season pretty well to this point.
Think about it.
Illinois looked solid in the first half, but could never really pull away. A big momentum swing at the end of the first half gave Penn State the lead, and from there Illinois simply couldn’t score in the final twenty minutes. They had just 16 points.
Leron Black was solid, as he seems to always be this season, but no one else could really find a rhythm. The defense forced 16 turnovers, and yet, late in the second half, the game turned into an alley-oop competition for Penn State. Shep Garner hit some threes, Tony Carr was solid as usual, and Mike Watkins was 5-for-5 from the field. To the Illini’s credit, they did actually keep Watkins out of the game with a couple of early fouls, but in the second half he had an impact.
I’ll reserve the right to criticize Illinois basketball this year, while still remaining optimistic about the future. During football season, I wrote quite a bit about taking away positives from all the horrible losses. I don’t think basketball is in the same boat exactly as football, but it still feels pretty far away.
Last week, a friend of mine who has a sports radio show in my hometown was talking about if Illinois basketball would be better off this year had John Groce been retained.
“It’s hard to accept,” he said, “but Illinois basketball would be better this year if Groce was still coaching.” (Rockford’s Sportsfan Radio 1330 AM - WNTA; @jlogli)
It makes sense. Even with all his flaws with running an offense, if Groce were still in Champaign, Tilmon would be there as well. Having a big man like him would open things up significantly. Not to mention that Underwood has kept his offense pretty ‘vanilla’ as it is, since he’s working with a somewhat limited roster.
It’s almost impossible to take away positives from what could very well be a two-win conference season. I’ll be “that guy” and try to throw a few at you: Trent Frazier’s emergence, Leron’s consistency and how we can at least be hopeful looking forward.
Groce may have led this team to 20 wins this year, but it wouldn’t have been sustainable. I sat through four years of his offense while I was in school, and every year I thought the same thing. “This year they’ll really compete” or “Man, with XYZ player back we can finally make a run.”
Spoiler: it never happened. Underwood has all of the coaching tools to bring Illinois back to where it was when my dad was in school. It won’t be fast, and it will require a big man and for Smith and Williams to develop.
So if you forced yourself to watch the 74-52 drubbing against Penn State last night, take comfort in at least one thing: with a season like this, it’s hard for things to get worse. And will all the play-by-play guys telling us that we’ve “been in every game,” they can’t be completely off the mark.