The favorite moments of the year from other staff members have probably been some of your favorite moments as well: Isaiah Williams’ commitment, the volleyball team making it to the Sweet 16 (again), and actually having some semblance of offense on the basketball court for the first time in five years. My favorite moment, however, is a little different.
It is the basketball team’s loss to Maryland on Dec. 3, 2017.
This was the game where the Illini were down big in the first half to the Terrapins. No, it is not my favorite moment because it is yet another example of great optimism only to turn into another great letdown. It was my favorite moment because it gave just a small picture of what things could be like in the future under Brad Underwood.
All four years I attended the University of Illinois, I was subjected to John Groce basketball. Don’t get me wrong, Groce was by all accounts the most likable human being on the planet. However, after the tournament appearance in the 2012-2013 season, it was impossible to watch. Hardly any ball movement, little to no execution, regressing defensive stats, and a team with no drive was essential all I was given. (I was not a student when they made the NCAA tournament. So, yes, I got the Heart of Dallas Bowl and three NITs.)
The opening moments of Underwood’s season were pretty exciting, albeit against lesser competition. Then there was the disappointment that was Northwestern to open B1G play, an overtime loss to a team we all knew was overrated to begin the season. On Dec. 3, more poor play ensued, and the Terrapins led 45-26 at halftime in Champaign.
Then Brad Underwood did that thing Josh Whitman hired him to do: coach.
It was a beautiful thing. The Illini came roaring back after what was likely a very loud 20 minutes in the locker room, and outscored Maryland by 19 points in the second half. So many things went right in that second half. Leron Black (18 points), Mark Alstrok (17), Aaron Jordan (15) and Trent Frazier (11) all contributed to a well-balanced offense that found ways to make plays despite a huge deficit.
I was not able to make it down to the State Farm Center for the game, but it was clear that the place was absolutely nuts. I can only imagine it was similar to when Illinois played Iowa on Feb. 7, 2016, and nearly pulled off a similar upset.
I don’t need to describle the manner in which Illinois lost to Maryland. I’m sure you remember.
Although it was terrible to watch, looking back on the season, that second half was the most fun I had watching basketball. It was up-tempo, featured good defense, and the home crowd was into it. That’s everything I want if I ever go to a game at the State Farm Center. I’m hoping Underwood and his staff can do just that.