Free Falling to the Mean

Illinois men's basketball, much like that one family member we all have, is a team we love but don't really like. They are blood, so we stick around, do our best to support them, and wish they would make better decisions, but they are extremely annoying and not very trustworthy.

Obviously, expecting Illinois to continually play in the heightened state they were experiencing on Wednesday is foolish. But still, crashing so quickly back down to Earth was unpleasant.

I wrote the following after the Illini molly-whopped Minnesota just a few days ago, in what was the best win for the program in years: "Whether this hope is crushed on Sunday at Iowa is so far beyond mattering in this moment." And that was true. It is no longer true. The afterglow and catharsis of the blowout win slowly receded during the last few days, and now is completely gone after Iowa buried us under an avalanche of threes. At one point the Hawkeyes hit roughly 85 three-point shots without missing, or at least that's how it registered in my brain (they finished an absurd 15-21 from deep).

And so, as we sit here reeling, we are pretty much back to where we were before Wednesday night: the Illini are not a very good basketball team. What will need to sustain us, and what will need to be called to the front of your mind even more often as the grueling conference schedule grinds us down, is that the future looks pretty good. In addition to the young, known commodities, Kofi Cockburn seems poised to be the best center Illinois has had since James Augustine. It's fun to think about who the starters may be next year.

Another aspect of this looking-ahead self-preservation exercise: Kipper Nichols and Aaron Jordan have come to represent, at least for me, this dark spot in Illinois basketball history that we need to move past as quickly as possible. I'm sure they are good dudes, but they are not good basketball players (which other Big Ten team would they have any shot of starting for? Rutgers? Penn State?). The fact that they received so much playing time at Illinois is what makes the recent seasons of Illini basketball so sad to think about, and so frustrating (Thanks Groce!). AJ will have graduated and Kipper should not be a starter next year. It feels like we are on the verge of a new era.

But that all comes next season. There are so many (SO MANY) games left to get through in the current campaign. The best we can really hope for, apart from a miracle run in the Big Ten tournament, is to eclipse the 10-win mark and avoid any more butt kickings before shutting things down until next Fall.

Joy certainly is fleeting. So is playing way beyond your talent and skill. Hang in there, folks.

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