Free And Clear

Free And Clear

First off, a weekend of nothing was glorious. As I've said before, it's not so much about travel or sleep or frequency of games for me. It's all about my writing brain being in the "on" position. When that little green light is on, I'm constantly playing with thoughts in my head. Thoughts that will end up in an article. It's not "research", but it's not not research. I'm constantly... formulating.

A full weekend with no formulating was so mentally refreshing. I know I keep talking about this the last few months but I'm really excited about finding this groove. It means the writing will be better and it means the crash-and-burns will be less frequent. You don't really need to know any of this – you just want to read the good stuff – but I need to let you know that this is how I get to the good stuff.

I also must consider how much of this is the lack of post-Tournament angst. I'm sure that has to play into this. Part of the stress of doing this is that when things go bad, people want to yell at me (specifically me) because the things happening on the court (or field) aren't pleasing to them. You can only mute and block so much of it. My response to everyone's "just ignore it!" advice has always been "let me give you my phone for three days." After those three days, I guarantee you would say "holy crap man - I had no idea." Guarantee.

So the fact that the vitriolic minority don't feel like they can spew their anger without significant backlash right now has to play into this. Like some kid living in a house with daily conflict offered two weeks over the summer at grandmas, just the lack of noise helps with mental clarity. I'm sure that's part of this.

But there's also a "put to bed" part of this. I mentioned it on the podcast with Tyler on Friday and it's the main thing bouncing around in my head the last few days. I don't know where this all goes from here but the mental cycle that began on February 4, 2006 has come to a close. We are now free and clear of all of that. ALL of it.

What's February 4, 2006 (besides my wife's 30-somethingth birthday)? It's the night we lost to Penn State at home. The night Rich McBride's game-winning three pointer was released 0.1 seconds too late. This post will simply be me taking you on a journey of the climb to that moment, the fall after that moment, and then the climb all the way back.

Act I - The Top Ten Program

I'll try not to get too deepdive-y here. This isn't The Complete History Of Illinois Basketball. This is just my fandom explained in three acts.

And the first act, for me, is from around 1983 or so through February 4, 2006. Basically, it's from when I first became aware that Illini Basketball was something I needed to follow every day throughout the winter/spring right up until the Rich McBride three-pointer was too late. There were highs and lows, and the bottom briefly fell out from under the program when Bruce Pearl decided to enter a sour grapes contest, but for the most part, from 1983 to 2006, Illinois was a top-10 program nationally. NCAA Tournaments 20 of those 24 seasons. Two Final Fours and four Elite Eights.

And it wasn't just "made the Tournament". We were a top-25 team so many of those years. If we say that the 6-seeds every year are the teams ranked 21-24, here's every season in there with a top-6 seed (meaning, one of the top 24 programs in the Committee's eyes):

1-seed: 1989, 2001, 2005
2-seed: 1984
3-seed: 1985, 1987, 1988
4-seed: 1986, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2006
5-seed: 1990, 1998, 2004
6-seed: 1993, 1997

Seventeen of those 24 years we were a top-24 team heading in to the Tournament. Easily top-10 nationally over that time period. Teams would have great runs in certain decades (Georgetown in the 1980's), but not many of them maintained it over 25 years.

And on February 4, 2006, we were ranked #6. We were 20-2 at the time, having wrapped up a 20-win season in January. We had been to the title game the year before and here were Dee Brown and James Augustine fighting for All American honors. We were all focused on either a 2-seed or a 1-seed and then the "unfinished business" from St. Louis.

We're playing Penn State, a team we had beaten 18 of 21 times since they joined the Big Ten. We hadn't lost at home in 25 months (not a single loss at home in over two years). It's the second half, and after a Shaun Pruitt layup to begin the second half, we lead by 16 over 10-9 Penn State. There's not one person in the building who realizes that a random Ben Luber three pointer to cut it from 15 to 12 with 15:54 left in the game will begin a 15-year slide for Illini basketball.

Penn State climbs all the way back and takes the lead with eight seconds left (on a second chance opportunity after a missed three we should have rebounded). We get the ball to Rich McBride, he makes the three, the crowd goes wild, but replays show the ball on his fingertips when the light went on. Penn State 66, Illinois 65 - final.

And that began...

Act II - The Fall

So many things would not happen the next decade and a half. Not only would we not get the 1-seed or 2-seed we were expecting in 2006, we fell to a 4-seed after losses to Ohio State and Michigan, the latter meaning we wouldn't win our 5th Big Ten title in six seasons. We finished one game back of Ohio State, lost to Michigan State in the BTT quarterfinals, and got a 4-seed.

Then we lost in the 4/5 game to Brandon Roy and Washington. And, like the Penn State loss, we had a double digit lead in the second half before blowing it. AND, after reaching at least the 2nd Round of the NCAA Tournament the previous seven seasons, we wouldn't reach the second round again until 2011. Tell me after that Washington loss "if you think this is bad, you won't even get to the 2nd round again until 2011" and I would have punched you in the face.

And if that time traveler were to come to me from 2019 and tell me, again, right after the Washington loss, "not only will you not get to the 2nd Round again until 2011, you'll only do it two times between 2007 & 2020 and you'll lose both", I would have seriously considered whether I'd make it through the next 14 years. Behind me, top-6 seed 17 of the previous 24 seasons. In front of me, a top-6 seed only once in the next 14 years (and only four NCAA Tournament appearances in total).

It's why I remained in denial until Utah/Bradley on Thanksgiving weekend of 2009. First it was "the recruiting isn't the best but Weber will just coach 'em up", and then it was "recruiting was broken but Weber/Jerrance fixed it with BP/DJ followed by Jereme/Meyers." And then, with all four of those players on the court (Edit: with two of those players on the court and two on the way), we lost to Utah and Bradley in the Las Vegas Invitational and it was over. It was all over. I had to admit that Weber should have been fired after the 16-19 season in 2008.

Unfortunately, Weber lasted until 2012, further damaging our stature. When he gave up on the season in mid-February in 2012, speaking in past tense at his post-Purdue press conference on 2/15/12, leading to an 80-57 loss at 11-13 Nebraska the following Saturday with Illini players in tears on the bench, the fanbase was broken.

"I guess it's my fault." Actual press conference quote.

Yes. It was your fault.

The rest you know. A year-one surge under John Groce followed by four years of believing he was capable of recapturing it. A year-one purge by Brad Underwood that left four returning players in his second season and a recruiting class of eight. And on January 3, 2020, right after we lost to Michigan State in Underwood's third season to drop to 9-5 on the year, I wrote the following paragraphs in my postgame article. This is a long snippet, but it's important:

Because of the history of the programs, football coaches at Illinois should be given five full years to see what they can produce and, also because of the history of the program and the resources available, Illinois basketball coaches should be given 2.5 years. See what the third recruiting class looks like, see what the third team looks like mid-January of their third season.

It's January of the third season, we have Kofi, we have Ayo, we have Giorgi, we have Trent, we have Andres, and we have Alan Griffin…. and we're 9-5 and didn't win any of our important non-conference games. Teams that should be well below us given where they were last year and the players they lost - Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, Indiana - look better than us so far. If we lose on Sunday, we'll be 9-6 and will probably need an 11-5 finish to dance. Half of those games will be on the road, and we only won once on the road last year and once on the road the year before, so… can you really see us winning 3-4 road games?

This is a crisis. We're in big, big trouble. We can't shoot - THREE HUNDRED THIRTY FIRST NATIONALLY - and if we don't start at least hitting an average number of threes, there's absolutely no chance we roll off 11 more Big Ten wins. Which means we will miss the Tournament for the seventh straight year.

I haven't checked KenPom's projections yet (his prediction for our record). Let's do that together, shall we? KenPom says we will finish the season… 17-14. I don't think that's even in the NIT. How is this even happening? We're really going to sit home in March again?

I guess there's always a chance for a Wisconsin moment. I said these same things after the Eastern Michigan loss for the football team. I went on the radio and talked about how I was like that guy pinning everything on the wall and running red strings from page to page, trying to figure out what he missed at training camp. I was certain there was 7-5 talent on that team, and I couldn't understand how that talent lost to Eastern Michigan. Well, that talent then went on a run, beat #6, drilled Purdue, thumped Rutgers, and put together the largest comeback in school history at Michigan State. So it's possible we'll see the basketball team do the same. The Illinois basketball equivalent of Illini football rolling off four consecutive Big Ten wins is something like 9 straight wins, right? Maybe this basketball team wins nine straight some time soon?

I mean, it has to, right? For our sanity? We're all going to break soon, right? I think I'm going to break soon.

I had been pushed right to my breaking point. Little did I know that the turnaround moment for Illinois basketball was only a few days away.

Act III - All The Way Back

We did not win nine straight after that loss to Michigan State. But we did win seven straight. And it was the turning point for Illinois basketball.

I tweeted this a couple weeks ago. There are turning points, and then there are TURNING POINTS:

Someone asked me to identify that game on my "bar code" chart of Big Ten games under Underwood (wins are orange, losses are blue) and it's right here in white:

(I really should expand that back to 2007. The amount of blue would be alarming.)

Back to the 208 Big Ten games the last 10 years. It's just so incredible to divide it in half. If you rushed through that Tweet, I'll give you the stats again. 208 total Big Ten contests the last 10 seasons (including BTT) and...

104 before the Ayo shot to beat Wisconsin: 38-66
104 since the Ayo shot to beat Wisconsin: 73-31

And it's ten times more important because it was WISCONSIN. At Wisconsin. "Hey Robert go all the way back to January of 2011 and give me every result against Wisconsin." OK.


If I asked my 21 month-old granddaughter to identify the moment that Illinois basketball turned the corner, she could do it. (And she'd probably be pretty upset to find out that two months after turning the corner, with our first Tournament appearance in seven years only a week away, a global pandemic shut down the season.)

And it's significant to me that this happened exactly as the decade began. That Wisconsin game was January 8, 2020. I mean, just look at this list of Big Ten wins for the Illini since Act II began. I'll put the 2020's in bold.

16 - 2021
15 - 2022
14 - 2024
13 - 2020
12 - none
11 - 2023, 2009
10 - 2010
9 - 2015, 2011, 2007
8 - 2017, 2013
7 - 2019, 2014
6 - 2012
5 - 2016, 2008
4 - 2018

The 20's Belong To The Illini.

And that concludes what I came here to say today. Eclipse Day, 2024. I tweeted this earlier, but I'll end this post with a time lapse video I took in Bridgeton, Indiana today as my wife and I watched the eclipse.

"Robert, please give us a visual representation of the three acts you just described."



Welcome back into the light.