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We ain’t back yet

But we are getting there.

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NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night’s win was fantastic. The t rue sign of a team starting to put it together in my eyes is winning tough close games on the road. Winning over Maryland was a great moment in a iconic venue and was another gritty performance, but there was something even more special about this Ohio State win. It may just be that it was the fourth win in a row and Maryland was the first win in the start of the run for the Illini, but more than that we could see a new maturity from Illinois, especially from the current ‘Big 3’ of Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier.

I usually don’t let out any emotions watching the Illini on TV. I’m no Robert, even if I’m one of his 17. I watch whether we are winning or losing with barely any reaction to what’s happening. My cat uses this as her nap time.

But even I couldn’t stop myself from giving out a big yelp when Ayo hit the dagger to bury the Buckeyes.

The cat left the room at this point.

This is the type of win that leads to an outpouring of emotion and hype on social media, as there should be. It was truly a great night to be an Illini. With a great recruit like Kofi Cockburn joining the squad next season, it’s hard to not be thrilled about the possible future for the program — even for those like me who still have a lot of skepticism around Brad Underwood, specifically his defensive system.

But then it started. On Twitter, and on r/collegebasketball, I started to see them.

The “Illinois is back” post.

Not to pick on Bill Cole, who TCR adores, but this was the first one I saw of many.

Ok, I get it. It was an emotional high after a huge win. Hyperbole will be abound. A lot of these post are made in jest (but many aren’t). I’m not here to be the fun police, but let’s be real.

Illinois won a game to improve to 10-15 and 6-8 in conference. In the context of the historic standing of Illinois basketball, that’s not close to being “back”.

Let’s go back (ha!), to the fall of 2016 and the start of the college football season. Texas was playing host to a then top-10 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In what ended up being an exciting shootout game, Texas won in overtime 50-47 and the ‘Texas is Back’ meme was born.

As we all know now, Texas was in fact not back. Notre Dame finished the season 4-8 and Texas at 5-7. It was a fun moment for Texas and a fantastic moment for all involved, but one game didn’t mean Texas was back to being a top contender in the college football world. Texas would lose to Maryland the next week.

The ‘Texas is back’ meme then took over and grew tiresome as soon as it came. A fanbase that was desperate to return to its former glory spiked the football at the 50-yard line and declared victory when the team had yet to accomplish anything. Seasons aren’t made in one week. College football programs aren’t defined by one game; they are defined by seasons.

The same is true for Illinois Basketball. This is a program that has a .642 winning percentage and the 16th most wins of all-time in college basketball. 10-15 is not close to ‘back’. It’s not even in the ballpark of ‘back’. There is still a long way to go for Illinois basketball to reach its former glory.

Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be excited. We should! This stretch has been great and the team has started to play to its potential in the last few weeks. I feel as good about this team as I have felt since Illinois lost to Miami in a close game in the NCAA Tournament in 2013.

The team is undeniably making steps forward, but the same could have been said under the first season with John Groce, but simple progress isn’t payoff.

This stretch won’t mean anything beyond a few wins in a non-tournament year if Illinois doesn’t return back to being one of the top teams in the Big Ten in the country year in and year out.

This may be the turnaround moment. This looks like it may be the time we can look back on and say, “this, this is the time that everything changed and we knew we were on track”.

Everything is pointing upward and we should have a great deal of hope, but let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. Let’s not declare victory before we’ve secured it.

Illinois Basketball won’t be back until it accomplishes one of the following:

Until then, any declaration that ‘Illinois is back!’ is premature. Illinois has the second-most NCAA Tournament wins without a championship. A four-game winning streak is great, but it doesn’t erase a 10-15 record and a home loss to FAU (163 in Kenpom).

On the “We Know You Have Sand, Illinois” Podcast, I along with Matt O’Neall and Brad Repplinger declared the season over for Illinois after the loss to FAU. That statement is still true today. Illinois won’t make the postseason (without a Big Ten Tournament title, which honestly doesn’t seem impossible now....). Even if Illinois were to finish with a winning record in the Big Ten at 11-9 or 12-8, the early losses will be too much to overcome — 16 losses would be too many. If last season’s 22-11 (13-5) Nebraska can’t make the tournament, then this Illini team — even with an hypothetical undefeated run to the Big Ten title game and a loss to put their record at 20-16 — doesn’t have much of a chance.

This isn’t to say this season has been a failure. There is no reasonable projection that saw this team in any postseason play with such a young rebuilding roster. This season’s failures at the macro-level came from past mistakes and missteps and were unavoidable for those currently in charge. The hole is being filled in, and we are starting to make way to ground level, but we are still in a hole.

We’re Illinois Basketball. Let’s act like it.

I’m probably being too serious about semi-joking tweets made after such an emotional high, and after all, it’s not like declaring early victory doomed Texas. Two seasons later Texas was officially back after beating OU in the regular season and winning the Sugar Bowl.

Like Texas, Illinois can return and should be expected by fans to return to its — dare I say — ‘rightful place’ as one of the premier programs in its sport. That is the standard the Fighting Illini should be held to, and there is still a long way to go to reach it.

Of course, all of the points made in this post goes away if we beat Wisconsin on the road as I will probably join all you crazy bastards in declaring Illinois is back, but for now, let’s keep some perspective.

We ain’t back yet.

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