There's no way around it: this was the worst season of Illinois Fighting Illini men's basketball in my lifetime.
There was so much more to it than just the program-record 19 losses. After all, back when we predicted this season, I guessed that they'd finish 14-17 (5-13), and I was one non-conference win too high (they were 13-18 overall with a 5-13 conference record coming into the Big Ten Tournament). My prediction was informed by Tracy Abrams' second consecutive missed season with an injury, Kendrick Nunn's thumb injury, Leron Black's knee injury and Darius Paul's arrest in Europe and subsequent dismissal from the team. Jalen Coleman-Lands came in totally cold due to missing the whole offseason with a stress fracture in his leg, leaving Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis to man the point. So, knowing all this from the get-go, how did this season still manage to inflict such misery upon Illini fans? Here's the recipe for a perfect storm of a season.
Step 1: Pre-Existing Conditions
This is preheating the oven for your casserole of despair. In addition to the injuries and dismissal mentioned before, Illinois would have to play half of the home games for what turned out to be a surprisingly difficult non-conference schedule in Springfield due to the renovation of the State Farm Center. This set a wonderful tone; a sparsely populated Prairie Capital Convention Center with less than half the capacity of the SFC would kick off the season 90 miles from campus.
Can you feel the excitement?
Step 2: What Is This I Don't Even
In the season opener against North Florida, Illinois not only lost by 12 in a game they never led, but lost starting point guard Jaylon Tate to an open finger dislocation. After beating North Dakota State and losing a heartbreaker to Kris Dunn's Providence Friars, the Fighting Illini returned to Springfield to lose to Chattanooga and then take on a Chicago State team hovering in the 340-RPI range. That game came down to the wire due to simply awful perimeter defense, something that would become a theme over the course of the year. Jalen Coleman-Lands would bail the Illini out of an overtime game with a buzzer-beating three.
Step 3: A Brief Glimpse Of What Might Have Been
Through all this, a true bright spot was graduate tranfer center Mike Thorne Jr, who quickly proved himself to be the best post player to play for the Illini since Mike Davis five years prior. Redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke showed great versatility in this part of the season, and Nunn, Tate and Black returned to action just in time for the Emerald Coast Classic in the hilariously-named city of Niceville, Florida. The Illini comfortably defeated a good UAB Blazers team to set up a match with the #4 Iowa State Cyclones. The Fighting Illini went toe-to-toe with the Cyclones in the first half, trailing by 1 at halftime. By then, however, Mike Thorne had left the game with a torn meniscus and with Leron Black clearly less than 100%, Illinois' rebounding struggled. They would lose by 11, and Mike Thorne would be reported as lost for the season.
Step 4: Unstable Equilibrium
The Illini returned to the grand opening of the renovated State Farm Center, where Lou Henson Court would be dedicated. Unfortunately, Demetrius Jackson and Notre Dame spoiled the occasion. The Illini would, however, reel off 5 straight wins, including a win over eventual tournament darling Yale and their third consecutive win against once-proud rival Missouri in the once-epic Braggin' Rights Game. Leron Black was ruled out indefinitely with a torn meniscus during this stretch. Illinois started the Big Ten schedule 0-3 with a heavily-shorthanded loss to Michigan State before upsetting Purdue at home by 14.
Step 5: The Wheels Fall Off
From here on out, the only regular season wins for Illinois would be against Minnesota and Rutgers, whose 15-16 teams were among the worst ever fielded in the Big Ten. The Fighting Illini would lose to Indiana by 34 and 27 points, Maryland by 26 and Northwestern by two (which is two more than Illinois should ever lose to Northwestern by). Perhaps the most ridiculous game in this stretch was a 110-101 3OT win at Rutgers. The following two things actually happened in that game:
A terrible turnover by the Illini, wasted with a hilariously bad pass from Rutgers. Who wants it less?
Yep, that's Jaylon Tate inbounding the ball to Alex Austin, who decides to step out of bounds in order to inbound the ball again...turning it over by stepping out. Lovely.
Leron Black was of course arrested in February, but will likely avoid jail time with a plea deal. That's a great sentence to have associated with one of your best prospects!
But a good thing happened in February. Da'Monte Williams, son of Illini legend Frank Williams, committed during the second Minnesota game. He's a 2017 kid from Peoria and looks like the kind of scoring threat of a point guard that John Groce has been looking for.
Step 6: One Shining Moment
No, not in the Big Dance...but after scoring their first real blowout (of the good kind) of the season against Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini knocked off the eventual 5-seed Iowa Hawkeyes as part of their late-season meltdown. Though Purdue would destroy a fatigued Illinois the next day, the depleted and beleaguered Illini put up a big win against Iowa to restore some faith in John Groce to Illini Nation
Step 7: Nasty Aftertaste
Two weeks later, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn had been arrested on suspicion of domestic abuse. So, let's review things, player by player, that have happened to those associated with Illinois Basketball:
PG Tracy Abrams: torn achilles' tendon, missed entire season.
SG Kendrick Nunn: missed time with a torn thumb ligament, missed the MSU game for the birth of his son, missed some time later with a hip contusion, arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in March.
PF Darius Paul: arrested during Illinois' Europe trip in August; dismissed from team for the second time
SG Jalen Coleman-Lands: missed summer with a stress fracture in leg
PG Jaylon Tate: missed time with an open finger dislocation, arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in March, is 4 for 46 from beyond the arc in three years.
C Mike Thorne, Jr: torn meniscus suffered in November; played in one game after that; will likely leave the program as he has no more eligibility
PF Leron Black: was never fully recovered from offseason torn meniscus; ruled out for season. May have redshirt if he stays with team after his arrest for pulling a knife on a bouncer at the Canopy Club.
PG Khalid Lewis: missed two games with the mumps. Seriously.
PF MIchael Finke: missed time with a knee contusion after which he was never quite the same.
2016 PG commit Te'Jon Lucas: suffered multiple fractures in his right foot.
2017 SF commit Javon Pickett: suffered bone contusion in knee.
2017 C target Jeremiah Tilmon: suffered dislocated shoulder in this past weekend's game.
Former C Meyers Leonard: dislocated left shoulder; out for the season (Portland Trailblazers)
Former PG Deron Williams: suffered a sports hernia yesterday.
Step 8: Murky Outlook
After steps 1-7, Illini fans have a weird taste in our collective mouth about the future of this program. If next year's team has no dismissals and remains healthy, it has the talent to make the NCAA tournament. Between the return of Abrams and Black, the second-semester addition of forward Kipper Nichols, another year of growth from Coleman-Lands and Finke, and a senior class anchored by the much-improved center Maverick Morgan, explosive guard Nunn and potential B1G Player of the Year Hill, John Groce has enough talent that he absolutely needs to return this program to the NCAA tournament. Beyond that, the 2017 recruiting class has a number of downstate targets such as Jeremiah Tilmon and Jordan Goodwin that should allow Groce to land a very good crop of future stars. He's going to have to, because I don't know if I can take being shut out of the tournament four years in a row.
He certainly could do all of these things, but I'm very skeptical that he will. This is a make-or-break season in every possible facet of his job. If he's the savior I once thought he was, this is his chance to prove it.