Things are very different now for Illinois Fighting Illini basketball than they were before the season started. The coach is different and half of the 2017 class is gone, and Malcolm Hill graduated from the University of Illinois without ever playing in the NCAA tournament.
So how did we get here? If you’ll recall, I was pretty optimistic about this season. And why not? The whole team had gone through some pretty serious strength training, Malcolm Hill was ready to lead, Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne, Jr. would be an elite center rotation, Jalen Coleman-Lands would surely improve on his stellar freshman campaign, and Leron Black and MIchael Finke would provide some tremendous forward play. This would be the year this era of Illinois basketball finally coagulated into a postseason presence. I predicted 25 wins because I am an absolute fool who can apparently be won over by an incredibly adept public speaker that hits the right Illini notes.
As I rise to his apology, anybody else would surely know...
I’m watching him go.
But what a fool believes, he sees
No wise man has the power...to reason away...
What seems to be...is always better than losing to UCF in the Ersatz Eight of the NIT.
I’m slowly getting to the heart of what exactly it was that went wrong for the Illinois Fighting Illini this year. I could write at least a thousand words on it. So instead, here’s a picture of what went wrong.
There was some trepidation after a late comeback sealed a win in an exhibition game with DIII Washington University, and it never really faded. A narrow 6-point halftime lead against Southeastern Missouri State held up in the opener, but Northern Kentucky’s 6’5”-and-under lineup led the Illini at halftime in the next game. A blowout of DII McKendree and a convincing win over Detroit Mercy instilled slight confidence in the Champaigniacs.
Then they lost to Winthrop despite having a 10-point lead with under 3 minutes to play. The loss inspired this article and immediately made me give up on this season. The next game was a loss in Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving to West Virginia.
By 32 POINTS.
THIRTY TWO POINTS.
Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball lost by thirty-two points.
For fuck’s sake.
By the time we’d lost to Florida State, I barely cared.
The remainder of the non-conference apparently included wins over NC State, BYU and VCU, which doesn’t matter when you open league play with a 25-point blowout loss to Maryland.
Illinois would end up with a 3-8 Big Ten record at one point, and then 4-9 two games later. Then things briefly started to look up.
A sweep of the historically pitiful, mid-major-level Iowa Hawkeyes gave the Fighting Illini a cheap two wins. Two more free wins were provided by the now-and-forever Big Ten cupcake that is the Northwestern Wilcats; despite how often fortune broke their way this past season, nothing could overcome their inherent inferiority to Illinois.
But a win against a talented Michigan State Spartans squad at home on Senior Day brought the Fighitng Illini to 18-12 (8-9). A pitiful Rutgers squad would be the final obstacle between Illinois and the Big Dance.
Surprise surprise, dribbling out the clock with a 2-point lead and four minutes to play wasn’t the most effective way to win a game. Though it’s possible that a Rutgers fan not biologically related to any players cared about that game, possibly to the point of using all caps, much more emotion was expressed on the orange and blue side...largely detachment. At this point, there was no longer any doubt as to whether or not a new coach was coming.
An embarrassing Big Ten Tournament loss to a Michigan squad fresh off an actual plane crash provided a third data point in the Groce vs. Beilein matchup this year.
Game 1: Illinois 85 Michigan 69
Game 2: Michigan 66 Illinois 57
Game 3: Michigan 75 Illinois 55.
See a pattern? One of these coaches appears to have learned from each game and their team improved.
That Game 3 would be the last game Groce would coach for the Illini, and after a rejuvenated and free-flowing Illini team won two NIT games, they lost to UCF largely due to their insistence on trying to use 6’11” Maverick Morgan inside on 7’6” Tacko Fall.
Thus the Illini ended another season without appearing in March Madness. Once unthinkable, the fourth straight year out of the tournament has transpired. Sure, I could go deeper into how there was never really a point guard for the John Groce Illini until he figured out that Te’Jon Lucas was better than Jaylon Tate at the position, and I could talk about the infamous Motivational Ladder, but when you get right down to it, a coherent offensive gameplan was never apparent and Illinois was always a team that could lose to anyone at any time, especially if they seemed to have some positive momentum built up.
We’ve removed the problem.