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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: 2018-19 Illinois Athletics

The 2018-19 Athletic Year is almost over. What stood out?

The Good

Volleyball Final Four

The 2018-19 athletic year belongs to the ladies who call the Huff Hall hardwood home.

Illinois posted a record of 32-4 and a conference record of 17-3 which was good for a second place Big Ten finish and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Illini breezed through the first four matches at Huff Hall. All-American setter Jordyn Poulter led the way and served as a steady presence for the Illini all season long. Jackie Quade’s star shone the brightest as she electrified audiences by exploding out of the gym point after point all tournament long.

The Illini dropped a five-set match in the National Semifinal to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Illini took the first two sets and were staring down the barrel of a championship matchup with former head coach Kevin Hambly and Stanford. Nebraska’s experience came through in the final three sets and the Huskers would go on to lose to the Cardinal in the final.

It was a banner year for the volleyball program and they have now claimed two Final Fours this decade under two different coaches. It’s safe to say the program is in great hands with Chris Tamas.

BEER

The University recently announced that they will begin selling alcohol at Memorial Stadium and State Farm Center beginning in the fall of 2019.

This has been a growing trend at universities across the conference and the country. It will certainly help the DIA raise some extra revenue, and can be seen as an olive branch to the suffering fans of the revenue sports programs. At least next year if the beloved are being blown out, you can have a nice cold one to keep you warm.

Men’s Gymnastics

The Illini finished second at the Big Ten Championships and are currently the fourth-ranked team in the country. The University of Illinois will play host to the NCAA Championships this weekend at the State Farm Center where the Illini will attempt to capture the program’s 11th national title.

Alex Diab took home his fourth straight Still Rings title at the Big Ten Championships. He is only the third Big Ten gymnast to go 4-for-4 in any event. He holds the second-highest average score in the country and will have his eyes set on a second straight Still Rings National Title. Look out for Michael Paradise this weekend as well. He carries the second highest average in the country on pommel horse.

The Basketball Uniforms

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, the zig-zag paneling is gone forever. There were rumors of an entire uniform makeover, but that’s now expected to come during the 2019-20 season. To hold us over, we had the pleasure of watching the team play a few games in the new Orange Flyin’ Illini Throwbacks.

Ayo + Giorgi, Giorgi + Ayo

Speaking of hoops, the program’s co-Most Outstanding Players were a pair of freshmen. The five-star Chicago PG with sky high expectations led the Illini in scoring and showed flashes of greatness in in his first season in Champaign. The Georgian big man shocked the Big Ten conference with his post scoring right out of the gate.

More importantly, Giorgi may already be the most meme-able player in Illinois history, and for that, we thank him.

Men’s Tennis

The Illini are a top-15 team and the second best team in the conference, only behind the No. 1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

Ubben Upgrades

With the funding and construction of the new football practice facility nearly complete, Josh Whitman announced plans to begin fundraising for renovations to the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility.

The Bad

Nepotism

Brad Underwood insisted on playing his walk-on son, Tyler, over Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones for the majority of the first half of the season. Lovie Smith decided to hire his son, Miles, — who has no notable collegiate coaching experience — to fill a full-time defensive assistant coaching position. The fans and this blog got into quite a tizzy over both of these situations. But in the end, it’s likely neither will play a major role in the ultimate success or failure of either coach’s tenure in Champaign.

The Jeff Thomas Saga

Illini fans thought there was a chance the East St. Louis product would wind up in Champaign after high school, but the star wideout took his talents to South Beach. After two seasons in Miami, Thomas announced his intents to transfer and committed to Illinois. There were rumors that he was going to head back to Miami. But they were quickly shot down. We concluded he had to be in Champaign because he was wearing a letterman jacket in an Instagram story and nobody would be wearing a huge letterman jacket in balmy Miami.

It turned out we were right, he was in Champaign. But we failed to realize it’s never too late to go back. The rumors would ultimately end up being true and Jeff Thomas would return to Miami to play under new Head Coach Manny Diaz.

It was a whirlwind. But we will always have those 48 hours where Jeff Thomas was an Illini, and we will always have that grainy, Kanye “Homecoming” highlight video.

Defense

Lovie Smith’s defense ranked 115th nationally in S&P+. It ranked last place in the Big Ten Conference by just about any meaningful metric and it cost Hardy Nickerson his job. Brad Underwood’s defense wasn’t much better. Here’s some quick statistical categories followed by the Illini’s national rank (351 D1 teams).

PPG — 269th

FG% — 311th

FTA — 334th

Fouls — 336th

Blocks — 281st

Placing defense in the “Bad” category is a very generous act.

Bruce Pearl

The Auburn Tigers made a run to the Final Four as a five-seed and we had to see Bruce Pearl’s face in the limelight for a whole week. It was utterly disgusting. We also had to fend off angry Auburn basketball fans — which we did not know existed — and Teddy Greenstein’s journalistic love affair with the scummiest of college basketball’s coaches.

The Ugly

Alma Otter

If we are being honest, this was the story of the year. Every three or four years the new batch of students on campus thinks they can leave their mark by assigning a new mascot to the university. When I was there it was a squirrel. Before that it was a Fightin’ Abe Lincoln, and in a few years it’ll probably be a Dire Wolf.

But Alma Otter caught on. Mostly due to the truly terrible pun on Alma Mater, and this professional looking mock-up put out by the unaffiliated @IlliniCreative twitter account.

First off, that’s not even an otter. Look at the tail. It’s more of a meerkat or mouse or maybe even a cougar. But that didn’t stop national program’s like ESPN’s Around the Horn and The Ringer’s One Shining Podcast from picking it up and getting their jokes in.

Luckily, Illini Nation reacted reasonably to this by arguing for a whole week about a student referendum that never even got out of the infancy stages. As long as the Illini continue to lose, the fanbase will continue to distract themselves with pointless debates about mascots, symbols, logos, chiefs and otters. That is a certainty.

The Football Uniforms

I actually liked the new football uniforms. They are in line with the “less is more” design trend and gave Illinois a bit cleaner look on the field. However, the internet disagreed and repeatedly told me they were ugly. The best part was that the internet hive-mind decided that the “take” to repeat into the echo chamber was that Nike just gave us Syracuse’s uniforms.

Basketball

The women’s team finally picked up a couple of conference wins after going 0-18 in Nancy Fahey’s first season. They still finished in last place with a record of 2-16 and have a long way to go. Fahey’s Big Ten record slips to 2-34.

The men fared better and showed more on-court improvement in Underwood’s second season. However, they posted the first 20-loss season and the fifth-worst overall record in program history.

63-0

Illinois lost a football game 63-0. At home. To Iowa. I was there with Illini and Hawkeye friends alike and nobody was enjoying themselves by the second quarter. It was that sad. It was honestly the worst day I’ve ever spent in Champaign, Illinois.

I hope I, nor my descendants, never have to witness something that embarrassing ever again.

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