None of that stuff really applies to the hapless Illinois Fighting Illini, who weren’t even invited to the dunk contest the Michigan State Spartans staged on their court. They were allowed to try and impede the Spartans, but they really didn’t.
It’s now been 328 days since the last time Illinois defeated a Big Ten team in football or basketball. March 1st, 2017. On this day, Matt Bollant would win his final game as the head coach of the women’s squad, who took down Nebraska 79-70 in the Big Ten tournament. Later that evening, John Groce’s men’s squad notched an improbable victory against Michigan State that seemed to cement them as a bubble team. Malcolm Hill’s emotion overflowed as the senior had rallied his team against all odds to win four in a row for their 18th overall.
We haven’t won against the Big Ten since.
Bollant was fired after his team was eliminated by Purdue to cap off a 9-22 season with a 3-13 conference record and an incredible 0-13 away record. It was the second straight 9-win season for the tremendously unpopular, scandal-ridden Bollant, who had been the subject of multiple University investigations. He had a winning record in his first year and then never again for his final four.
On the doorstep of the NCAA tournament bubble, Groce’s team played not to lose against Rutgers, starting to dribble out the clock on possessions with just under 4 minutes to play protecting a 4 point lead. Sure enough, they lost and then failed to show up against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. Groce was dismissed for failing to make the tournament for a fourth straight year despite the massive amount of experience, talent and depth on his squad. He never beat Wisconsin.
Legendary Division 3 coach Nancy Fahey took over a women’s hoops program that had lost 20 or more games in three of its last four seasons, and Brad Underwood took over a men’s program that would lose five seniors and all of its centers. Lovie Smith, still desperately scrubbing the fallout from the Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit debacle, fielded one of the nation’s worst offenses and never came particularly close to winning a Big Ten game, putting up nine losses in nine attempts.
Fahey took advantage of a soft non-conference schedule to quickly match the nine wins of Bollant’s last two teams. Unfortunately, conference play started with a 100-65 thrashing by Maryland and has since included two losses where the Fighting Illini had their score more than doubled (76-37 against Rutgers and 86-42 against Michigan). They’ve put up seven losses in their seven attempts to bring the total to 16-for-16.
Underwood’s squad struggled in the way you’d expect an inexperienced and small squad to struggle. Any team with athletic big men staged a layup line, and although there have been three overtime losses and a buzzer-beater, the loss to Michigan State still constituted our eighth in eight conference games. Pressuring to get turnovers is kind of all we can do on defense since we don’t have anyone that can protect the rim. 24 for 24.
Thus, the odds of Illinois making the NCAA tournament are irrelevant. What’s really worth tracking is whether or not the Fighting Illini can pull off the Triple Perfect Season in conference play. Tomorrow, they’ll host the Indiana Hoosiers, one of a pair of Big Ten teams to replace their head coach after a miserable campaign and find immediate success (Hello Buckeyes!). Between men’s and women’s basketball, there are only 19 games remaining for Illinois to pull it off.
At this point, any seed that will be projected for Illinois requires farm equipment.
What Needs To Happen
Right now, the only conceivable way the Fighting Illini could lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament is to win the remainder of their conference games and then win at least two games in the Big Ten tournament, or to win the whole BTT. At this point, the latter seems much more likely. There’s no quit in this team, but the football team didn’t give up either and they still lost every game.
Even at our lowest point, we’re still better than Missouri.