I’ll be the first to admit that I wrote this team off after the devastating loss to Florida Atlantic on December 29. Following an equally disappointing loss in St. Louis, which I made the long trip down for, the season felt lost. I was already thinking about what could possibly happen next season and if things will get better in the next three to five years. With wins over Minnesota, Maryland, and Michigan State, however, I was pleasantly surprised that this team had some guff — and perhaps the season was not a total loss, after all.
Saturday’s win over Rutgers was anything but pretty, and not indicative of a team that should have been on pace to lose as many 25 games this year. But we saw several very important things occur: Giorgi cementing his campaign for a Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection; Trent’s emergence from his shooting woes; and, of course, a game where Rutgers could have easily pulled away in the second half, but the boys kept fighting back and put it away.
But my biggest takeaway is the number five. That’s how many conference wins the Illini have this year, with seven games left to play. The team has already surpassed last year’s conference win total.
Believe me, having a 9-15 (5-8) conference record is still by no means impressive. FAU, Notre Dame, Xavier and Northwestern are all still what I would qualify as “bad losses.” FAU is the only team of the three outside the KenPom top-150, but the other three were still damning for a team who would find themselves on the bubble, which of course the Illini will not have to worry about. The No. 5 is more important for what it says to fans who watch the games and follow recruiting. Something is building.
Yes, it’s a tired narrative, but it might be one that I finally believe with Underwood’s team. After the Maryland and Michigan State wins, I felt Rutgers was the perfect trap game. The first Saturday conference home game in two years, a likely sold out crowd, and coming off the biggest program win since knocking off No. 1 Indiana in 2013.
But as the game unraveled, and Rutgers seemed to be throwing the ball into the hoop, the boys stuck it out. Giorgi has a monstrous performance and I cannot explain enough how happy I am that we have him. He truly is a treasure. The defense was not good in the half-court set, but they did force several bad shots towards the end of the game and got stops when it really counted. Andres Feliz is a “junkyard bulldog,” as a close friend of mine has described him. (NOTE: can we get a gif of Feliz staring down Winston from the MSU game?) Trent can shoot. Ayo doesn’t miss on a fast break. And next year we may be adding frontcourt depth with Kofi Cockburn and Antwan January. Can you imagine if Giorgi develops his jump shot?
Unfortunately, I do know as an Illinois fan that things often don’t work out how we plan or would like. Remember when John Groce brought in Leron Black, Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Darius Paul, amongst others? All those guys were supposed to be talented enough get us over the hump. Nunn left after his domestic violence incident. Leron was suspended after the debacle at the Canopy Club and battled injuries for the better part of two years. Darius Paul never so much as stepped on the court for an official game wearing an Illini uniform. The point is, things don’t always go as planned. And even though Hill and Black were stars for the orange and blue, timing and things out of their control prevented them from an NCAA Tournament run.
If things don’t totally go berserk in the offseason, I am expecting a fun season next year. I’m not expecting 25 wins, but I am expecting a more complete team and fewer headaches. This expectation began with how the season has truly turned around. It’s funny how five wins can do that.
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