Relevance December 10, 2012
How many different college sports websites did you check yesterday? If you’re anything like me, you checked at least 10. You followed every link that Dan put up at Illinois Loyalty. You mined different message boards for more links. You did a Google News search for “Brandon Paul”. You devoured anything you could get your mouse on.
Illini Basketball is relevant again, and it really couldn’t feel better. That was a long, dark tunnel we just went down, and getting back into the sunlight feels great. 50-56 in the Big Ten over six seasons. That really happened. Now, after only 10 games under the new coach, you can call us “back”.
Are we all the way back? Of course not. We probably won’t be for at least 3 years. Once these seniors graduate, it might be rough sailing for a bit. John Groce’s first class is very impressive (especially since he had only six months to put it together), but it will take some time for those players to develop. And as of today, Groce’s second class only has one available scholarship, so his 2014 class probably won’t be a program changer. Which means the 2015 class is his first chance for this Chicago relationship building to pay off. Which means the 2017 NCAA Tournament is probably the target for all of this program rebuilding that John Groce has undertaken.
And this year isn’t a lock, either. I see six teams that probably would have won the Big Ten in 2007/08: Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan State. This is as deep as this league will ever be. We could go 14-0 in the non-conference, winning the Maui and knocking off #11 Missouri and #10 Gonzaga, and then finish 9-9 in the Big Ten. This league is crazy deep.
But all of that is gravy. Before the season, I thought 10-4 would be a solid non-conference record for a team coming off a 2-12 finish to 2011/12. Lose to Gonzaga and Missouri, hope to go 2-1 in Maui, and then lose one other (at Hawaii? Georgia Tech? Auburn? A second Maui loss?). I would have taken 10-4 in a heartbeat, because then a 9-9 finish in a deep Big Ten was probably enough for a tourney bid.
Now we’re staring at a 13-1 or 14-0 start and thinking that 8-10 in the B1G is probably still in the tournament. Which is what already makes this one of the more enjoyable Illini Basketball seasons in a long time. We’re way ahead of where we all thought we’d be, which means we’re playing with house money. We all just wanted to get back to the tournament this year, and now we’re on track for a protected seed. So much fun.
And it feels like we deserve it. I started this blog right around the time that President Obama took office, and there really hasn’t been an outstanding team to write about. Two 6-6 bowl teams and one NCAA Tournament win over UNLV. That’s it. Flip that to W’s second term and I could write about an NCAA title game appearance and a Rose Bowl. Go back to Clinton’s second term I could write about an 8-win bowl season and a Big Ten basketball title.
It’s been a long four years. Both programs were, for the most part, irrelevant. That’s acceptable for football, as we’ve discussed many times here. 6-6 bowl seasons are difficult to reach, so to have them back to back was kind of fun. But that should never be the case for Illinois Basketball. We should never go 50-56 in the Big Ten over six seasons. We should never have one NCAA Tournament win during a Presidential term. We should never be irrelevant.
Which is why this #10 ranking means so much. Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Syracuse, Florida, Louisville, Ohio State, Arizona, Kansas, ILLINOIS. Sure, there’s no Kentucky or Michigan State or North Carolina in the top-10 right now. But we should be competing with all of those teams for top-10 spots every year.
Don’t believe me? Ask Bill Self:
“Illinois was the easiest place to recruit to I’ve been,” Self said last month. “Within three hours you can sign a Final Four team every year.”
(A word of warning if you follow that link: It’s a Bruce Weber article, and he blames the new president, chancellor, and AD for getting fired, not 50-56 – you might become ill.)
(Six games under .500 in conference at Illinois over SIX seasons. I still can’t believe that actually happened. One year is fine – that happens at every program. Even two or three are allowable at a place like Illinois. But sub-.500 over SIX seasons with no sanctions involved? It’s incredible.)
Sorry. Yeah, I’m probably still not over it. I truly only care about two teams in this world, and one of them was forced into irrelevance over a six year period. (And the other one has the steepest climb imaginable to get anywhere close to relevance.) That’s personal to me.
Of course, that difficult run set up what could be a very special team. After three years of a coach yelling “no!” while he was shooting, DJ is free to roam (and shoot) (and lead us in rebounding). After three years of getting pulled from the game and the first hint of a mistake, Tyler is playing loose and free (and hitting three pointers to win games). And Brandon Paul has morphed into an absolute superstar (to the point of being mentioned as a legitimate Player of the Year candidate – if the season ended tomorrow, he’s probably first team All American).
Relevance. Every Illini fan from Highland Park to Highland needed this. We all needed a team to rally behind, and it looks like we’ve found one. Sure, there will be lots of losses – this is the deepest Big Ten in 20 years – but man oh man will the next three months be fun.
Any chance we could draw Kansas State in the tourney? Nah – they’ll probably fold in conference play and not make it.
(I’m not really sorry.)