So here’s the thing: Today’s game is the most important game of the year.
Today’s game is the most important game Illinois has played in the last five seasons.
Since the 2010-11 season, the Fighting Illini have failed to produce a winning record in the Big Ten regular season. Seriously, the Illini have only been able to produce .500 records in two seasons over the past eight years. Sure, there were two years of NCAA tournament berths in 2011 and 2013, but those games meant nothing in the bigger picture of the “rebuilds” that were supposed to be taking place during those seasons.
As fans, it’s quite easy to use the 2004-05 season as the quintessential “peak” in the history of Illinois basketball. The deepest postseason run in program history produced one of the most memorable seasons in the history of the Illinois Athletic Program. Since that season, a natural decline brought our expectations as fans back to the “just make the Sweet 16” stage.
*Skypoints for Bill Self*
Today, we’re stuck with a team that hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament in what will be five consecutive seasons. That hasn’t happened in program history since (checks with the TCR Stats Department) the year 1980, and it could have easily been avoided in multiple occasions during Big Ten Tournament play. You see...
In the history of the Big Ten Tournament, the Fighting Illini have won their first game of tournament play in 15 of 20 total appearances. After winning its first eight tournament openers, Illinois (seeded third) lost to Michigan in 2006 in its first tournament game during the quarterfinals. That happened again in 2011, when the Illini (seeded fifth) fell to the fourth-ranked Wolverines again in the quarterfinal round. Both losses were frustrating, but both teams had assembled strong resumes that eventually got them an invitation to the big dance later in March.
Then came 2012, when a “basically fired” Bruce Weber lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the first round, and the ninth-seeded Illini missed the postseason for just the second time in 13 seasons. After a respectable showing in the 2013 tournament (and an appearance in the second round in the NCAA tournament), the Illini needed to string together two wins in 2014 to have a chance at an “at large” bid to the dance (thanks in large part to the patented John Groce eight-game January losing streak). In heartbreaking fashion, Illinois lost to the top-seed Michigan Wolverines by one point in the quarterfinals.
Enter 2015, when the Illini were crushed by Michigan in the first round in need of a win to potentially earn an invite to the NCAA Tournament (followed by a 21-point loss to Alabama in the first round of the NIT). For two straight seasons, the team played uninspired ball at the doorstep of the postseason. Throw in one more beat down from Michigan in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, and the Illini squandered three legitimate chances at an NCAA birth in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament.
Goodbye John Groce... hello Brad Underwood.
There is no potential postseason bid, there is no winning Big Ten season, and there really is no reason to call this season a success — unless Illinois wins today. For eight seasons, we have watched this Illini team slough their way onto the floor and play relatively uninspired basketball with the success of their season on the line. This year, the team has only one thing to play for: pride.
We’ve heard all season how Illinois is the “best winless team in the Big Ten” or the “most dangerous team in the conference” and that’s all good and fine and what not, but this is where they prove it. Two out of the last three years of the Big Ten Tournament have been downright unbearable for Illini fans to endure, and there’s not a lot to be inspired about with this season’s edition either. Trying to rally behind a team that has consistently thrown-in the towel during the most pivotal time of the year is frustrating, and there’s not really any reason to think this year will be different.
This year’s team can change all of it. A win today over Iowa shows fans that these guys not only have an eye on their future, but a winning culture ready to bubble to the surface sooner rather than later. All that “changing the culture” talk from the coaching staff can come to fruition in front of our eyes today with a victory, and that gives us every reason to watch.
Show us that you’re better than all those other teams from seasons past. Show us these tournament games have meaning. Show us you’re ready to win on the big stage, and beat the damn Hawkeyes.
We’re ready for the future to start now. Show us that you’re ready, too.