There were good moments, there was a really bad moment/month, and then some decent moments, but all in all, the Fighting Illini 2013-14 happened, and that's about it. It was an entertaining year spent waiting for 2014-15. You never want to say that about your team, but in this case, it's fairly true. There may be a bright future ahead, but first you have to get there.
From the Top
The preseason predictions didn't see the Fighting Illini making much of themselves. A trip to the NCAA bracket wasn't out of the picture, but it was one of the kinder possible outcomes. It was just a rebuilding season, or, in actuality, a transitioning season.
John Groce, the half human, half other-worldly-being, was now coming into his second year wearing an orange tie, patching up roster holes the size of a Chicago recruit. The previous coach, Bruce Weber, wasn't exactly a program builder and left the player situation in disarray. One of the first things Groce did upon arriving in Champaign was recruiting Rayvonte Rice from Drake to fill in the lead scorer role, however transfer rules forced Rice to sit out 2012-13, but now that all that was out of the way, Rice became the projected star.
There was next to no veteran experience; only two seniors were on the roster -- Jon Ekey, who transferred in from Illinois State, and Joseph Bertrand, the lone 4-year Illini. The other starters would be juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. After that, a wave of freshmen, potentially good freshmen, but not early 2013 starters. We'll get back to these guys in a little bit.
The season started off well. Only two losses came from the non-conference schedule, Georgia Tech (I'm going to partially spoil the ending now, but GT lost to same team that the Illini lost to in the NIT), and Oregon, a 7-seed in the tournament. But, let's be honest, there was only one true prize during the non-con -- Mizzou. If you grew up any where near St. Louis, you know that the Mizzou-Illini rivalry is worth watching, even in down years. Every holiday season you prepare for one game where both sides of the Mississippi are fighting for Braggin' Rights. The last four years have belonged to Mizzou and it ain't fun. The 2013 contest went back and forth. With less than a minute left, 3-point prowess of Jon Ekey (given the nickname 3-Key) put the Illini with the lead.
Abrams sank two free throws in the final seconds for the win. It was the pinnacle of the first half of the season. The Illini were looking strong. The starting 5 played well together, maybe even better than people were expecting. Hopes were high.
The Absolute Worst Month in Fighting Illini History aka When Hell Froze Over
An 8-game losing streak -- it's a not easy to watch and it's even more difficult to redeem.
The Fighting Illini were in a slump of proportions not seen in the Land of Lincoln since the Willis Tower became the tallest building in the world in 1974 (you may remember it as the Sears Tower). The entire month of January and a week into February, the Illini wallowed in misery.
It started with a trip to #4 Wisconsin, which was perceived to be winnable only because the successful non-con schedule and a Top 25 ranking in the polls -- a 95-70 beating proved otherwise. It was the following game against Northwestern when Illini fans truly suspected a turn for the worse. The Illini played a style of basketball that night so lackadaisical and uninterested that there were reports of tears of boredom from the fans in attendance. Those poor fans were awarded with a 49-43 Northwestern.. what's a word for victory that doesn't imply success? Decision? Next came a loss to Purdue in Champaign, which is awful just by name alone. Five games later and the Illini were 2-8 in the B1G. A combination of poor play, nagging injuries, and regular B1G play just cause the Illini to hit an all time low. They were shooting less than 35% from the field and had an average margin of defeat of 11.4 points.
Referring to this section's title, it's not like Hell froze over so that something impossible happened, but it was more like we were in a proverbial basketball hell that just happened to freeze for a long time, literally. Chicago, the surrounding area, and the northern half of North America experienced one of the worst winters in 30 years. It all just added up to a miserable span of life. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. Not even Northwestern alums.
For an Illini fan, it was the train wreck from which you couldn't look away. There was such a strong mix of desperation, confusion, and unbelief. What was worse: the losing, or the build up before the losing? The season had started well, but out of nowhere came the cliff that took it all away.
Speaking of Cliff's, let me just point out one more particularly terrible, horrible day. Back in November of 2013, two different recruits decided to pull the rug out from under the program. Top 100 recruit Quentin Snider decommitted from Illinois so he could play ball closer to home in Louisville. Later that afternoon, ESPN Top 3 recruit Cliff Alexander committed to Kansas, but only after a few seconds of trolling.
The Turning Point
Late one February evening, I turned to the Big Ten Network. Penn State was the easiest game for the rest of the season; if there was any game to break our losing streak, this was it.
But hark, what's that in yonder section of seats? Why, it's a disguised group of the Orange Krush. What brave souls to give their side the positive ballyhoo required. Huzzah traveling students. Your effort is what makes the B1G great.
The game started on a somewhat different note for the Illini. Groce had finally had enough of the old starting 5 and elected to begin anew. Freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill for the first time along side Rice, Abrams, and Egwu. This was the starting 5 of the future. They fought to gain the lead late in the second half, mostly behind the play of Nunn's 19 points on the night. By the end, the losing streak had snapped, the freshmen were heroes, and the transition to the John Groce era had finally completed. I've watched a lot of sports before and followed many bad teams, but after that game, I've never known potential to look that bright.
The Illini finished the season with a 5-3 record, ending with a 20-15 record overall and a 7-11 mark in the B1G. The regular season was capped off by the dramatic performance of 3-Key, sending the Illini home with one last road win against the Hawkeyes. Does it look eerily similar to you, or is it just me?
A 7-seed in the B1G Tournament marks the season for what it was -- neither great or truly terrible. A win over Indiana, a painfully close loss to Michigan, and the Illini were essentially done. When we were awarded a 2-seed in the NIT, it felt like one more basket against Michigan and the Illini could have been in the postseason. Given one more chance to find glory the Illini got a win over Boston University but then a loss at Clemson.
It won't be long until the Illini have the talent to play in the Big Dance once again. 2013-14 ended with a weird feeling. Time moved on while Groce built the future. Players rose from the freshmen ranks and junior players got better. Next year we see three new transfers become eligible and two Top 100 recruits join the team. Young though next year's talent may be, the starting 5 from this season will be ready and willing to lead and carry the team. The Illini of next year will play a much more competitive version of Illini hoops, I guarantee it.