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Broken February 4, 2013

I’m a glass-is-half-full-but-watch-out-for-evaporation kind of guy. Cautious optimism, we’ll call it. Internally, I see no need to dwell on the negatives. I’m a worrier, so I’m never comfortable in my optimism – I’ve never once been confident with a 20 point halftime lead – but more or less, I try to stay positive. A game is never as bad as Twitter makes it sound.

But today, in the first half, right about the time where Wisconsin took a 14-9 lead, I broke. I felt it go. The season, my optimism, everything. Broken. I sent out a Tweet saying such (with some “Really? Now? Early in the first half?” responses). I just felt it click. A must win game, at home, after three straight home losses, against the worst Wisconsin team in a decade, and we score 9 points in the first 10 minutes. I just…

When that dam breaks, it gets dark quickly. No bowl, no tournament sinks in (again), and I question my entire sports belief system. Why am I a college >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> pros guy again? Why do I see it as my personal duty to wear Illini gear everywhere I go? Why do I keep reassuring my boys “don’t worry, there’s a payoff coming for all of these bad seasons”?

And then the stats hit. I started thinking back over the past five years.

2008/09: 5-7 football team after starting the season ranked; basketball team loses to Western Kentucky in the first round.
2009/10: 3-9 disaster of a football season; lose-at-home-to-Minnesota-to-lose-our-tourney-spot basketball season.
2010/11: Surprising 7-6 football season (with a chance for so much more); an actual NCAA tournament win as a 9 seed.
2011/12: 6-0 becomes 6-6 for football; 15-3 becomes 17-15 for basketball. Both coaches fired.
2012/13: 2-10 disaster for football (one of the worst Big Ten seasons for any team in 15 years); from ranked #10 to maybe even missing the NIT for the basketball team.

Which leads me to that keeps-getting-worse, gut-punchiest stat of them all.

Last two seasons of Big Ten football: 2-14 in the Big Ten.
Last two seasons of Big Ten basketball: 8-19 in the Big Ten.

Ten. And. Thirty-three.

At this point, I always try to rally. I switch sports to the next season. I honestly tried to cheer myself up with a football scenario like this:

“You know, maybe football can surprise next year. I mean, Jonathan Brown was only healthy for 3 games last year – he and Monheim can really change the look of this defense. And Jon Davis – he’ll be healthy again, too. Bill Cubit will love finding ways to get him the ball. Beat SIU and Miami (OH) and then maybe steal one against Butch-Davis-is-now-gone Cincinnati…”

Stop. STAHP. Stop doing this to yourself. It’s all gone, and it might never come back. 2000-2006 might just have been the best basketball run of my lifetime. The 1980′s will never come again for football. It was broken to the point of Mike Thomas throwing crazy money at Kevin Sumlin… and he didn’t want to touch it. And then Mike Thomas throwing crazy money at Shaka Smart… and him choosing VCU over Illinois. It’s all broken, and we’ve called around, and it doesn’t look like anyone in the entire country is willing (or able) to fix it.

I keep typing out posts like this, hoping that we’ve bottomed out. I think I’ve declared rock bottom – “it can only get better from here” – at least three times in the last few years. And it keeps getting worse. 10 Big Ten wins in two seasons in two sports. 12th out of 12 when you rank the Big Two sports across the Big Ten. I kept saying it and saying it to try to force it all to sink in, and about the 10:00 minute mark of the first half today, it pushed its way in.

The hardest part of the whole thing? In those 43 Big Ten contests I’m talking about, we had more raw talent than our opponent in at least half the games. Yes, at least as far as this year is concerned, in both sports, the players are all learning new systems. It takes time to install everything (and to recruit players for these systems). So even in all this darkness, I’m still patient.

But I’m also broken. I woke up today certain that this would be the turnaround. This isn’t a very talented Wisconsin team, we’re at home, and we’re playing for our tournament lives. I was there in person to see us destroy Ohio State just one month ago. No way we lose to Wisconsin at home. Win this, steal a win at struggling Minnesota, and we’re back on track for the tournament.

Nope. And so I’m left to search for a new statistic that I can let marinate over the next 48 hours. Found it:

Football and basketball, the five seasons listed above, number of times we finished above .500 in conference: TWO. Two for ten in just trying to finish above .500. Twice. Two times.

OK, THERE’S rock bottom. It can’t get any worse. The climb back starts next year.

What’s that? Both the football and basketball teams, due to heavy graduation losses, might actually be worse next year?

It’s like a broken record.

Share
21 Comments
PittsburghNellie February 4th, 2013

My fandom is on auto-pilot. I’m emotionally checked out for a while. I’m just sitting back watching Illini fb/bball and the Cubs slowly try to make it back.

Joe John February 4th, 2013

The climb back wont happen till Mike Thomas is fired.
Lets face it,…the guy went 1 for 3 on his hires. We can thank him for fixing girls basketball.

Football and Basketball…he nuked football and and hasnt made basketball any better. We can all say he shot for the stars, but there’s more than 1 or 2 guys that can turn around a program. Settling on Groce/Beckman were mistakes. Ultimately, the AD position is about being a salesman more than anything and Mike Thomas struck out on selling Illinois as a top flight athletic program to prospective coaches. Taking a 500 MAC coach…and telling him that he’s the guy to put Illinois back on the map..you serious? Beckman’s resume..ok fine. I’ll at least buy it that he had the resume to get a chance, even though his interview should have eliminated him. But John Groce…should have never been considered. You dont hire a guy based on a few games of a post season tournament.

Illinigrad February 4th, 2013

The record is badly scratched which is as good as broken. Ever listened to a badly scratched vinyl record? It is not a pleasant experience. The vinyl can also get stuck where you hear the same snippet over and over until you move the needle past the scratch. That is what we are — a badly scratched record. And, apparently, we don’t have a coach who can pick the needle up and move past the scratch. It is dreadful, so dreadful that I have a hard time buying season tickets any more, not that I don’t want to support the players, but it just is not fun to watch loss after loss after loss in TWO sports. Bottom line: Mike Thomas has to go. He did not get it done. He did not sell the program and get the right coaches. We were really bad in FB when we hired Mike White — but, it was a great hire and he was persuaded to come to Illinois. We were really bad in BB when Lou Henson was hired. Thomas, or his replacement need to find the 21st century version of White and Henson to haul us out of the ash heap of Illinois varsity FB and BB. It has never been this bad since the slush fund.

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 4th, 2013

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Yeah, we’ve definitely got problems but I don’t think this Wisconsin team is as bad as everyone is saying. They’ve got 7 losses (at Florida, to a good Creighton, at OSU, a 2-point loss to MSU and a few others but have beaten #1 Indiana in Bloomington, beaten Minnesota, etc. – I think they’ll do some damage in the tourney is all I’m saying). They’re doing what they did last year. Everyone says they’re no good yet they get stronger as the year goes on. Bo Ryan has got a great thing going up there.
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I still think there’s hope with Groce down the road (Beckman, eh, not so much). Not that Groce is perfect, but I still think he was a good hire considering all of the factors We are shorter than our opponent to a man pretty much in every game. Do you know how hard it is to win in basketball when that’s the case (out-rebounded 38-26 yesterday). We have pretty much the same Weber-recruited guys as last year minus NBA player Meyers Leonard – not to mention the whole Jereme Richmond thing from two years ago – and we’re getting basically the same results as last year (loss at home to NU, loss at home to “poor” Wisconsin team, no mental toughness). It’s the same guys and I think they’re a bad mix and I’m not sure they’re fixable. I’m not ready to heap that all onto Groce. Weber’s poor recruiting really left us in a bind. No coach was going to fix in one year the Illinois pile of clay that was left by Bruce Weber. Our early season “greatness” was clearly an aberration based on some timely 3′s falling. This is who we are and have been for a while.
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All I’m saying is Weber recruited these guys, it’s pretty much a known fact they aren’t a great fit for Groce’s system so lets see what happens in a couple years when we have some Weber recruits. We’re now getting some flow from Chicago hoopers – that did not happen under Weber. It’s funny but I think in retrospect, maybe we should have kept Zook and let the coordinators continue to get better – yes we had that terrible 0-6 swoon but we still made a bowl. I do think it was the right choice to get rid of Weber, though. And I think we will be good under Groce. He certainly does have flaws (all coaches do) which seem more visible lately, but there is a upside and I think he’ll prove to be a really good recruiter.
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BTW, BP is maddening. I thought it was great that Groce did not start him after his MSU shenanigans. Way to send a message. Then he proceeds to start the game 0-5 (en route to 3-13, 0-4 from 3) and we never really recover.
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“Mike Thomas struck out by not selling Illinois as a top flight athletic program”, Joe John? Where have you been the last few years? We are not, and have not been, a top flight athletic program in a long time. These prospective coaches aren’t dumb. And wait a minute – first you say he should never have offered the job to premier coaches Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, now the message is he didn’t sell it correctly? Geez, which is it? I mean, if we’re top flight, we can go after any coach. But no – you said he shouldn’t have even offered it to them. I’m confused.

agiganti February 4th, 2013

I went back and looked at the players Bruce brought in; when you list them you look at it and ask yourself how are these players going to finish above .500 in the conference. maybe it’s part looking back and knowing what happened but none of those players were or ended up to be difference makers.
Smart and Stevens didn’t come because they knew it was going to be tough as hell the first several years (see Michigan Basketball) and they were too hot right now to risk it.
Let’s (can’t believe I’m saying this) but pretend we’re Michigan, take our lumps and see what happens in 3 or 4 years.

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 4th, 2013

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Bruce Weber had the ideal situation in 2005 (because he’s a really good coach, not a very good recruiter). He had the ultimate recruiter in Bill Self bring in this great crop of guys and leave them for him. He was able to almost take that group to the peak. Then, when he had to go get his own soldiers, well, we see what has happened.
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I’m convinced college basketball is 80% recruiting. And that’s why I like Groce and why Weber had to go and why Groce can’t just take these guys and make them much better than they were last year. Our early season high rankings were kind of like how ND made the title game in football. Just don’t lose and you move up the ladder as others lose since the rankers feel compelled to punish anyone who loses. It doesn’t mean you’re actually getting any better though. Had those rankers seen that it took a last second shot to beat Gardner Webb at home, they may have thought otherwise…

ATOillini February 4th, 2013

6-23
6-23
8-32
4-15
10-26
8-27
3-24
2-14
3-20
7-22
6-26
9-25
2-13
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So post Gonzaga we are 74-290 on 3 pointers…..25.5%.
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Could not turn the game on until well into second half. Saw Joe Bert make the first of his 3 straight baskets. That was at 11:21. Turned the tv off at the 8:23 mark when we called timeout with the score 55-41. In those 3 minutes I think I saw Wisconsin penetrate to the basket about 5 times as if we were standing still. Completely unacceptable.
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The great thing about the title of this post, Robert, is that it applies to both me and our basketball team. Dark days indeed. My only hope is to go with Grog’s belief that Groce will be a good recruiter.

Lou-a-villini February 4th, 2013

Tom Crean didn’t exactly set the world on fire his first few years in Bloomington. I’m willing to give Groce the benefit of the doubt. However, I think Beckman is turning his program into Indiana football – and the dippin’ & trippin’ kind, at that.

Lou-a-villini February 4th, 2013

P.S. After every Illinois loss, I picture Joe John laughing like Newman after Jerry and the crew were sent to jail in the Seinfeld finale.

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 4th, 2013

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Great point, Lou (on poor man’s Tom Arnold). Crean was a very “pedestrian” (dare I say Groce-like, Joe John?) 17-15 in conference during his first two years at Marquette. Then this decent basketball player named Dwayne Wade lit it up for the next two years before heading off to multiple NBA titles. Yeah, recruiting matters. And getting some time to recruit those guys is necessary.
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In fact, after Wade left, Crean went 15-17 the next two years in conference. They totally should have fired him…

BexleyIllini February 4th, 2013

Maybe its an easy excuse, but I agree the BB team’s woes are largely due to Weber’s recruiting. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that in 9 years of recruiting, Weber had exactly 1 guy (Meyers Leonard) make into the NBA. And Meyers barely scratched the surface of his potential before leaving. I don’t think any of the seniors from this year’s team will make it, and of the sophomore only Egwu would seem to have a chance if continues to improve. We haven’t had a true point guard since DMAC, and no tough power forwards for a long, long time. Is it any wonder that we’re not competitive in the B1G?

As for football, my fuse is about 2 nanometers long with Tim Beckman even though he hasn’t had a chance to bring in his own players. Probably isn’t fair, but this guy can be thrown under the bus immediately.

IlliNYC February 4th, 2013

I shouldn’t be, but I’m really surprised at how this year has turned out. I think the biggest difference between now and early season is BP & TG.

Honestly, what is BP thinking? It’s just bizarre. He’s a senior. He’s gotten a chance to finally play in a system that works for him, and he’s regressed to…losing his starting job.

And I just feel sorry for TG. He’s really just melted these last couple weeks. Him hitting shots opens this offense up in a big way.

I still think JG is the guy to get us there.

illinitrueblue February 4th, 2013

Robert,

I was the Hall yesterday and it was every bit as bad as it looked on TV. There is no spark, no real fight and a loser’s look to about everything we do. UW is decidedly mediocre. Unhappily, we are worst. I honestly do not see us winning another game. Really. Not one.

And how about JoeB scoring 3 straight times down the floor, on mid range drives and jumpers and then he DOESN’T TOUCH THE BALL the next 3 times down the floor! That sums up this team.

It’s over. Play the underclassmen and let’s give them some experience. I cannot imagine they will play any worse.

CTillini February 4th, 2013

Robert, dear friend, you kept it together longer than I. Somewhere in the second half of the Northwestern game, mine snapped.

Since then, I’ve veered between indifference and anger, vacillated from denial to rationalization, and finally landed on the need for extreme measures.

It’s time to go nuclear. If Bruce Weber touched it, John Groce must nuke it.

Crean the roster like there’s no tomorrow. Recruit the grey area. Higher Cliff Alexander’s extended family to the support staff. Implement ball on a stick.

While you’re at it, blow up Assembly Hall. Weber’s stink still lingers in that concrete tribute to the 70′s. Let the Park district keep it, start fresh. There has to be a way – either through some combo tax exempt debt, student fees and alumni donations – to finance something new. Has to be. The debt capital markets are wide open.

Go nuclear. Leave nothing. This. Has. To. Stop.

There was once a dream that was Illinois Basketball. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.

CTillini February 4th, 2013

Robert, dear friend, you kept it together longer than I. Somewhere in the second half of the Northwestern game, mine snapped.

Since then, I’ve veered between indifference and anger, vacillated from denial to rationalization, and finally landed on the need for extreme measures.

It’s time to go nuclear. If Bruce Weber touched it, John Groce must nuke it.

Crean the roster like there’s no tomorrow. Recruit the grey area. Higher Cliff Alexander’s extended family to the support staff. Implement ball on a stick.

While you’re at it, blow up Assembly Hall. Weber’s stink still lingers in that concrete tribute to the 70′s. Let the Park district keep it, start fresh. There has to be a way – either through some combo tax exempt debt, student fees and alumni donations – to finance something new. Has to be. The debt capital markets are wide open.

Go nuclear. Leave nothing. This. Has. To. Stop.

There was once a dream that was Illinois Basketball. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.

I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Illinois Basketball is the light. Save it, John Groce. I beg you.

illiniranger February 4th, 2013

there are cultural problems in both of our major athletic programs. the right coach can turn them around – if NW can do it in football and Butler can do it in Bball we can do it in both. we aren’t forelorn, there’s the right coach out there (i think we have him in bball.)
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JG will turn us around. it’s a bigger rebuild than any of us wanted to believe. We were picked to finish 9th in the B1G preseason poll. we are simply reverting to the mean. if we miss those shots against Hawaii and Gardner-Webb we wouldn’t even have dreamed about the tourney anyway.
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football is a complete mess and has been since Mackovic was here. The only time i can recall being confident was when Kittner was slinging it, but unfortunately, that was the outlier of the RT era. i’d say we are at likely 3-5 years away best case from a solid fball team.

Illinigrad February 4th, 2013

CTIllini nailed it in that post.

FloridaIllini February 6th, 2013

I’m a lifelong Illini fan. I’m an Illinois grad. I have several Illini grads in my family. If you have followed the Illini as long as I have (since early 50′s) you have become accustomed to mediocrity with occasional flashes of superiority. The Illini are like Las Vegas- they win often enough to keep you coming back I think of one the current day differences is we all want to believe we can be super successful just by wanting it. We are all prejudiced in our thinking that Champaign and the U of I are relatively easy sales when recruiting coaches and players. In our mobile society there is less allegiance to your “state school”. This isn’t like one of Claire Bee’s books. I grew up 30 miles from Champaign and to someone from Chicago it’s like going to the tundra in Alaska. No draw there. History? We were great in the 20′s in football with Zuppke and Grange. How do you build a tradition off of that? We had the Whiz Kids in the 40′s but have never won a real national title. Our current coaches were not first choices. We live on the crumbs of recruiting. I challenge any of the critics- do you think you could sell our school to a blue chip recruit? I seriously doubt it. We somehow think we would be a choice of top flight coaches. History says we aren’t. Take a look at the top of the Big 12 basketball. You have Bill Self (Kansas), Bruce Weber (K State) and Lon Kruger (Oklahoma). All ex Illini coaches. At best, if we are lucky, we are stop on the way to somewhere better. I love the Illini- always have. I am, however, realistic based on almost 60 years of following them. I do think we have fallen even further in the last several years. I keep on hoping but I also keep my expectations real. You should do the same for sanity purposes.

Lou-a-villini February 6th, 2013

If you think Kansas State and Oklahoma are better gigs than Illinois, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Weber is using the same formula at KSU as he did at Illinois….step into a program with a couple of studs and win quickly/ Where do you think they are going to be in a season or two once McGruder leaves??? EESH! And, Oklahoma….? I think your Big 12 reference speaks more to how bad their conference is than how good those teams are (exclude KU). Put together a B1G v. Big 12 challenge and it might be a clean sweep. Next…..

GrogsBBQPepperoni February 6th, 2013

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Obviously, we fired Weber, he did not leave for greener pastures. And Kruger left for the NBA (read money). Prior to that, we did attract him from Florida to come to Illinois (where he had recently taken his team to the Final Four). Illinois had a really good basketball legacy up until the last 6 years or so.
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I don’t think we have any remaining legacy in football. And what we have had has kind of been a fluke. We can’t even sustain mediocrity in that program.

CTillini February 6th, 2013

Florida….if I understand your post correctly, net net, you’d suggest we just lower our expectations and accept this steaming pile of mediocrity? That can’t possibly be the answer. I mean, I guess it would be easier, but what a crappy way to go through life.

Gotta fix this thing. Man up.