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Aren’t You Excited for Next Season?

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Maybe Illinois can head into the offseason on a positive note.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Hey... Illinois Won!

Illinois took care of Rutgers pretty easily in Piscataway on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t as easy as the previous meeting in Champaign, but there was never a point where it felt like Rutgers was going to take control of the game. Illinois got great performances from Aaron Jordan and Michael Finke, a couple of upperclassmen who haven’t played their best basketball over the course of the Big Ten schedule.

It would have been nice if Illinois got that production from key role players earlier in the season, but Illini fans will still accept it for the last few games of the year if the team wants to go on a mini-run in NYC.

Most importantly: Illinois didn’t finish in last place. I know it doesn’t really matter, but it still feels good knowing the Fighting Illini weren’t the absolute worst team in football and basketball last year. (Thank you, Rutgers.)

Fighting the Apathy

After the string of heartbreaks (Northwestern, Maryland, Iowa and Nebraska) at the beginning of the Big Ten season, I had felt my interest in the beloved begin to wane earlier and faster than it ever had before. Once I realize Illinois can’t make it to the tournament, I tried not to live and die with every single win or loss. That happened pretty early, and that’s the worst and scariest part of being a fan. Yes, losing stinks, and watching your team fail with so much on the line is heartbreaking, but when you reach the point of apathy is when the real worry begins to set in.

So I’m going to try and convince you why you should be excited for next year in case any of the loyal TCR readers are starting to feel apathy toward the Illinois basketball program.

Illinois is 2-2 in its last four games and 4-6 in its last ten. The Big Ten is bad — really, really bad. There’s maybe four and a half good teams. I say this to say that Illinois isn’t really all that far away from the top half of the Big Ten. Obviously it’s a down year for the conference and the conference as a whole will improve, but if Illinois took the floor with any team seeded 5-14 in the Big Ten, they would have a reasonable chance at winning.

If Illinois can have a nice trip to New York and exact revenge on Iowa, upset Michigan and beat Nebraska (for the third second time), they could send the program into the offseason on a positive note.

When was the last time an Illinois season ended and you weren’t utterly disgusted with the program? Last year’s debacles against Rutgers and Michigan were gross (get it?). A 31-point loss in the BTT to Purdue? Fun. Back-to-back blowout losses to Michigan in the BTT and against Alabama in the NIT? Delicious. The last time was maybe that one-point loss to Michigan in the BTT on that missed Tracy Abrams shot — we lose to Michigan in the BTT a lot.

The point is, Illinois doesn’t need to go win the Big Ten Tournament this week, they just need to grow, fight and show some promise. The program has shown that they are quick to quit at the end of the season in the past. The bar has been set pretty low.

Alright, now I’m going to start changing the course of history, so bare with me. Remember those four heartbreaking losses I mentioned earlier? Well, what if Illinois won some of those games. Let’s just say Nebraska doesn’t hit that buzzer beater and we execute an inbounds pass against Maryland. These aren’t terribly radical leaps to make. That’s at least two more Big Ten wins, and we are talking about a six or seven win team instead of a four win team. Add in those BTT wins and we have a 17 or 18-win middle of the pack Big Ten team on our hands. That sounds a lot more like the common preseason expectation of this team.

Now, no, not even I can create a universe where this Illinois team makes the NCAA Tournament. But that was never the expectation.

It’s hard to see a 12th place, four-win team and think that they didn’t underachieve. I’m not here to convince you that Underwood and the Illini met expectations this season, but maybe what they’ve put together isn’t really that far off from what most of us expected.

All of a sudden I tell you we land Courtney Ramey, Tevian Jones and a 6-foot-9 grad transfer in addition to Ayo Dosunmu; Mark Smith takes the sophomore leap; and Frazier and Black are playing at an All-Big Ten level.

You’re pretty excited about next season, aren’t you?