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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.)

IlliNYC December 11th, 2012

Feels corny to write, but I feel actual happiness for the kids on this team. There was a press conference early in the season (maybe after Butler or USC) when someone asked Tyler if he was having more fun this year…and he just grinned.

Anyway, it’s nice to have it be fun again.

illiniguy December 11th, 2012

I loved the closing.

Here’s a question though: When Kansas plays Kansas State this year, which Illinois ex-coach do you root for? Personally, I’d have to say Kansas (Self). My disdain for him is more attenuated and I really want proof that Weber was not the answer for Illinois. Had Weber gone quietly and said “Sorry, I did my best but it didn’t work out” instead of throwing excuses around and encouraging his buddies to do that too, I’d feel differently.

Digger11 December 11th, 2012

@illiniguy: Agreed.

I used to hold a serious grudge against Self, but not anymore. I mean, sure, eff off if you don’t want to be at Illinois. And my “you’re either with us or against us” Illini mentality will always exist. But my contempt for Self has faded over time. Kansas, his dream job, he’s won titles there. Whatever. It is what it is and he’s long gone.

I was one of Bruce’s biggest supporters, even during the bad times. I liked the man, and truly wanted him to succeed here. But the way he left town was just so distasteful, and, frankly, embarassing. Had he just owned up to what happened to the program the last few years, I’d maintain love and respect for the guy. But after all the comments and excuses on the way out the door, I mean I wish no ill on him, but…ugh. Also, Izzo? The worst. What a clown. I hope we absolutely own MSU under Groce.

Speaking of Groce. OMFG did we luck out. I won’t even bother writing about how excited I am for the future, as Robert has already captured it masterfully in his last several posts.

wdallen December 11th, 2012

I can’t wait until Weber gets exposed at K-State. It may not be this year but they’ll soon find out what we did here. He’ll do good with someone else’s players, but the program will fall toward mediocrity in no time.

gusher December 11th, 2012

DJ leading us in rebounding is more of an indictment of our interior than a compliment to DJ.

BexleyIllini December 11th, 2012

K-State fans better hope that Weber can find a second Jerrance to recruit for him, otherwise they are completely screwed. So glad Weber is far away from CU, and so glad Groce is here.

RCIO December 11th, 2012

I got a lot of grief over the years because of my stance on Weber. But, he was a big mistake. Sure, he seemed like a nice enough guy and I am sure he is a good family man. But, he was a low ceiling HC that schools like Illinois should not have to accept. We deserved better. Much better.

He had an unhealthy “us against them” attitude. Call it “a chip on his shoulder” or just a plain old inferiority complex, Weber was too consumed with fighting some perceived slights and demons that not many people saw.

Two things that I heard from Weber right after he got hired at Illinois still bother me to date. First, Weber was almost proud that he had been rejected 12 or 13 times in HC interviews before SIU. He said that was because he was too honest and had too much integrity, suggesting everyone else who had succeeded was not.. To me, that meant Weber had a horrible presence and was a terrible salesman. If he cannot sell himself, how is he going to sell the school to 4 or 5 star recruits against MSU, IU, Duke, etc.? Well, we know how that turned out.

Second, I think he was almost in shock that he really was the coach of the University of Illinois. He acted as if he had never really believed he would rise to this level. The humiliatingly small salary that he initially accepted from RG speaks a volume. He then acted as if being hired at Illinois was a validation of his righteousness, somehow masked his shortcomings, and expected the kids to accept and come to him and his program just because he was now at the great big University of Illinois.

So what we had in Weber for 9 years was a “loyal” and “nose to the grindstone” guy who was not a natural leader, not a good salesman and not a good game coach and who was too stubborn and insecure to change his ways. As for his supposed loyalty, nothing he did in the months leading up to and after his firing leads me to believe that he is loyal or principled.

Now I feel better.

GrogsBBQPepperoni December 11th, 2012

RCIO (can I just call you ‘Rico’ to make it flow better?), don’t leave out how he would air his dirty laundry or issues he had with his own players in post-game pressers. I hated how much he ragged on McCamey.
I think he did know (and still does) the X’s and O’s of basketball, but is better tailored to coach specific players for his system. Jereme Richmond was probably the worst fit for a guy like that and he should never have recruited him. And his downfall set in motion Weber’s exit. Weber almost needs a team of nerds like him.

lowellhamilton December 11th, 2012

I liked how, at the end, Weber would openly pine for the players on other teams and talk about tough they were, with the clear implication being that his own players were soft. These are 20 year olds. Calling them out in the press is unlikely to have a positive impact.