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To The Top Ten And Back January 12, 2013

Every year, especially in college football, you see hatred in the media for preseason polls. “Why not let them play the games first – first poll should be four weeks in” and “a bunch of people guessing – yeah, that sounds like fun.”

I, however, love them. I love how accurate they can be. Yes, they’re bound to miss on several teams each year. There are always surprises and disappointments. But, for the most part, all you have to do is look at rosters and coaches and you can predict how football and basketball games will go. I think that’s amazing.

Pro sports predictors always seem to struggle to match what college prognosticators put together. With baseball they can get close – it’s easy to predict that a team with a payroll of $200 million will generally perform better than a team with a payroll of $45 million. But in the pro sports with a salary cap, it’s not as easy. General managers and coaches will stumble on the right mix of talent and scheme, and suddenly a bad team is good.

But in college – in college it’s fairly easy to predict. You take recruiting rankings (I still bristle when people hate on recruiting rankings by pointing to one single 3-star superstar), you add in coaching and established schemes (more so football than basketball, but Bo Ryan proved today that if you implement the right system and recruit to it, you can win with marginal talent), and you have a formula to predict the outcome of sporting events. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. It would make my grandfather’s brain explode.

The media takes note of all of this in their preseason polls. So it’s always surprising when a team like Illinois comes out of nowhere, wins the Maui, and hands Gonzaga what might be their only loss of the season. It’s a rare occurrence for a team to be as far off the radar as we were and then win some big games like that.

Which led CBS Sports to name John Groce their midseason coach of the year this week. Of any team in college basketball, we had out-performed our preseason expectations the most. Here’s what CBS had to say:

CBSSports.com Midseason National Coach of the Year: John Groce, Illinois. The Illini were projected as an NIT team entering the season, but Groce has done a phenomenal job with this group. The first-year coach has Illinois off to a 14-3 start even after Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota. The Illini own wins over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State.

So it’s always equally amazing to me to watch a team that far above their expectations get sucked back down. One would think that after beating Butler, Gonzaga, and Ohio State, you could rest assured that it wasn’t just a hot start – we were a legitimately good basketball team.

Nope. In fact, the preseason Big Ten beat writer poll – 24 beat writers, two from each school, ranked the Big Ten from 1-12 – might have been accurate. Here are the results from back in October:

1. Indiana
2. Michigan
3. Ohio State
4. Michigan State
5. Wisconsin
6. Minnesota
7. Iowa
8. Purdue
9. Illinois
10. Northwestern
11. Penn State
12. Nebraska

That looks… stunningly accurate so far. After two weeks of Big Ten play, I’d say only Minnesota is ranked incorrectly. Well, Penn State too, but this poll was put together before Tim Frazier’s injury. And maybe Iowa is a little high, but I certainly don’t expect to return from Iowa City with a victory. If Michigan beats Ohio State tomorrow, they certainly deserve to be #1… but it just feels like Michigan will lose at Ohio State when they have the chance to move to #1.

I mentioned my grandfather above – I have to think that accurate preseason polls would blow his mind. He died in 1983, so he really only ever knew the era of dynasties. It would be so surprising to him that Gonzaga or Butler (or Boise State and TCU in football) would be considered powerhouse programs. And there were no real recruiting rankings back in his day, so preseason polls were mostly “UCLA was good last year so they’ll be good this year”. Now, we almost have it down to a science.

And, after today, it looks like those Big Ten beat writers were right about us. Lose by 17 at home to Minnesota and then lose by 23 at Wisconsin? After losing at Purdue? Yep, 9th place is probably just about right for this team.

Why were we picked 9th? Well, our seniors had underperformed. We looked like we were sleepwalking through the second half of the Big Ten season last year. We went through a coaching change. No recruits in the 2012 class. Yeah, there’s just not the right mix to think Illinois will be anything more than 7-11 or so in the conference.

And then, as quickly as we shot to #10 nationally, we fell right back. We have serious flaws. We’re possibly the worst Illini rebounding team I can remember. We seem to be our own worst enemy, and when things get tough, we collapse. This game was 14-0 before we could blink. We just weren’t ready to play. The worst part was the sleepwalking. We fell behind 8-0 at Gonzaga and then fought like bulldogs. We fell behind 8-0 to Wisconsin and didn’t recover until midway through the second half. Where is the fight from December?

All of which has me so incredibly sad right now. Again, I started this blog four years ago, and the best thing I’ve had to write about in those four years is either the 7-6 season and a Texas Bowl victory over RGIII or a 19-13 basketball season and a win in the 8/9 game over UNLV. Those are the high points.

So when we shot to #10, I went a little insane. My “we’ll play anyone, anywhere” tweet after the Gonzaga game felt like it was four years in the making. We’re FINALLY good at something. I FINALLY get to write about a top-end program.

Nope.

So now I’m fully, fully recalculated back down to my “just get to nine wins”. Truth be told, I think we all kind of knew this was coming. We knew that this team had some serious flaws – namely interior scoring and rebounding – and that the Big Ten might eat us alive. So… just get me nine wins and a tourney spot. Win nine.

Let’s check in again with the list:

at Purdue W (-1)
Ohio State L (even)
Minnesota L (even)
at Wisconsin L (even)
Northwestern W
at Nebraska W
Michigan L
at Michigan State L
Wisconsin W
Indiana L
at Minnesota L
Purdue W
at Northwestern W
Penn State W
at Michigan L
Nebraska W
at Iowa W
at Ohio State L

OK, so we’re still on track. But can we even trust a win at Nebraska on the 22nd? And nine wins is counting on a win at Iowa. That’s probably not happening either. And we’re supposed to beat this Wisconsin team in Champaign?

This is probably the best week to have a one-game week. We surged to the top-10. We’ve fallen back to “probably the ninth best team in the Big Ten”. Beat the nerds, regroup over the weekend, and then go get a road win at Nebraska.

Oh, and maybe rebound a missed free throw.

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6 Comments
Joe John January 13th, 2013

To put into historical perspective how inept this past week of Illini basketball was – Illinois hadnt lost consecutive games by 17+ points since 1997. The 96-97 team did make the NCAA tourney, losing in one of the most disappointing and embarrassing fashions to UT-Chattanooga. The 96-97 team quite similar to this one. Both very soft in the front court. The 96-97 team had a Kiwane on it though. This one doesnt. It also had a Lon Kruger coaching it. This one doesnt.

illinibacker January 13th, 2013

“All of which has me so incredibly sad right now. Again, I started this blog four years ago, and the best thing I’ve had to write about in those four years is either the 7-6 season and a Texas Bowl victory over RGIII or a 19-13 basketball season and a win in the 8/9 game over UNLV. Those are the high points.”
.

wow, that just makes me depressed too.

Lou-a-villini January 14th, 2013

9-9 Eyes on the prize.

SouthernIllini January 14th, 2013

It’s funny how fast some of us run toward the cliff.

Sure we knew this team was flawed. Sure we knew they’d throw out a stinker or two. But they still own 3 awesome wins that just look better as the season goes on. And the B1G is a brutal, brutal conference. Everybody is going to have some headscratcher losses.

Maybe the team just needs a day off all together to kind of clear their heads. This season is a very long and grinding affair that’s going to tax even the best teams in the country. After we demolished Ohio State, did anybody see them turning around and beating Michigan even at home? Nope.

Just keep an even keel, keep the effort up, and we’ll throw another shocker win or 2 on our way to a 9 or 10 win conference season.

GrogsBBQPepperoni January 14th, 2013

.
I dunno, Southern. That’s 3 stinkers out of their first 4 B1G games. Groce needs to get these guys back. They didn’t even show up on Saturday.
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We’ll see how it goes when the going’s tough. Because it was easy when things were going good. Time to earn that pay now, Coach G.

BexleyIllini January 15th, 2013

Grogs,
I wouldn’t call the Minny game “a stinker”; Minny played very well and everything went there way on that night. Nonetheless, Purdue and Wisky were both inexcusable and Groce needs to right the ship immediately to get this team to 9-9. Ultimately, though the players have to want to win more than the competition.