Feb 28, 2018

It's over. The worst season of our lifetimes - worse than 1998 football + 1998/99 basketball, worse than 1977 football + 1977/78 basketball - is over. It's still February, and, mercifully, FINALLY, it's over. We will not have to endure something like this ever again.

I mean that. This cannot happen again. We won't be able to take it. A combined 4-24 in Big Ten games? Swept by Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern (plus, you know, all the really good Big Ten athletic programs)? This simply cannot happen again.

Now, I don't think it will happen again. Both in the near term (we'll be better next year, for example) and the long term (it's really, really hard to go 4-24 in the conference across both sports). This is essentially the first year for both rebuilds, so it's not like we're, say, Minnesota with Richard Pitino going 15-17 (4-14) in his fifth season. We've made the coaching hires and now we wait for them to rebuild the programs.

But man, this was hard to take. I'm a patient guy. See my "five full years, no questions asked" stance for football coaches trying to rebuild at Illinois. I'm willing to wait for coaches to recruit the players they need and implement their systems. But 4-24 - attending at least 12 of those 24 - this was a very difficult endeavor.

I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. You've been living it just like I have. But now that's it's over, I feel like I need to do two things: grieve (what just happened) and believe (what will come).


I think that both coaches have underperformed so far. That seems obvious. Five days after he was hired, had I told you "Lovie will go 5-19 his first two seasons" you wouldn't have believed me. Similarly, had I said "Brad Underwood will go 4-14 in his first season in the Big Ten", you would have said I was crazy. Especially if you knew the the Big Ten was a four bid league.

So I think it's perfectly fair to feel discouraged so far with both rebuilds. They're not going to plan so far. Lovie's 2017 is probably understandable given the roster situation, but 3-9 his first year with those 24 seniors (seniors who had just gone 6-6 and then 5-7 as sophomores and juniors) is a bit alarming. And Underwood, while faced with similar roster constraints and 7 players departing when he arrived (five seniors graduated, two players transferred), still underperformed. Win those three overtime games, or have Nebraska miss that three at the buzzer, and I think we'd be talking about a season that perfectly met expectations. But we lost those three overtime games, and that three pointer fell, and we finished 14-18.

Rosters? There are several things to grieve there as well. Lovie's second season saw 9 open scholarships; Underwood's first year had two empty rides and he still hasn't found players to take them. I think we'd all feel a lot better if Landers Nolley and Colin Castleton were joining Ayo in Champaign, or if Quincy Patterson was our QB of the future. We've experienced rebuilds where there's great recruiting hope almost immediately. Besides Ayo (and players like Avery and Brown on the football field), we just haven't seen much of that.

So there's plenty to grieve. We don't really know if this is going anywhere. And if it's not, man, how deep is that hole? We don't know how to get out of this one - what if it gets deeper? I don't want to think about this anymore.


But there's something about tonight that feels final. As in, "this is the last time I'll have to feel like this for a long time". That's not to say we'll be in bowl games and Sweet 16's each of the next 30 seasons, but I do feel like this low point won't be reached again. We've reached it, we've endured it, and now there's nowhere to go but up.

Will it all magically be fixed next season? Of course not. But I think you can clearly see where it's going. For both programs.

Take Brad Underwood. He's the first coach to fail in his first season since... Lou Henson in 1976? Lon Kruger came in - 6-seed his first season. Bill Self came in - 1-seed his first year. Bruce Weber, 4-seed. John Groce, 7-seed. Brad Underwood, 14-18.

Why? Well, he took over the worst roster since... Lou Henson in 1976. No seniors on the roster (he added one fifth-year transfer), five open scholarships (he filled three with Mark Smith, Greg Eboigbodin, and Matic Vesel, but filling scholarships in May and June is tough sledding with so few players available) - it was a very rough situation to walk into. No NCAA Tournament appearance for four (now five) seasons, second only to Pitt in the number of departing players from high-major schools - it was rough. I hoped he could work a miracle (he did at SFA and OSU), but it was not to be.

So what do you do. You begin the long, arduous process of rebuilding the program. Much like Henson did, you build it brick by brick. He went out and signed our top recruit this decade, he now gets nearly the entire roster back, brick by brick we're building from the worst season of our lifetimes back to something respectable. Yes, it would have been nice to have the conference Player of the Year and win immediately like Chris Holtmann did at Ohio State, but this is not that rebuild. This is going to be foundational.

Much like football. Last year's poor season was... intentional? Lovie played 22 freshmen (starting 16 of them at some point) because he is building for 2019 and 2020, not 2017. He more or less looked at the roster he inherited, said "I can't work with that", and is immediately going with his own recruits as soon as he can get them to campus. As I said during the season, this is an expansion team. He's starting completely over.

Which is maybe what we needed? We've been trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together for decades now - maybe scrapping everything and starting from scratch is necessary?

That's why I feel this sense of completion tonight. The hardest part of all of this - endurance through the "nobody knows what they're supposed to be doing" season - is now complete. Both teams return nearly everyone next year. Both teams, honestly, should improve each of the next three seasons. Month by month, from now through the time where Trent Frazier and Ricky Smalling are seniors, the teams should constantly improve. Small setbacks, sure - I could see a surge next year for basketball with the three seniors and then a slight step back in 2019/20 - but overall, steady improvement for the next three school years is the expectation.

So I'm wildly discouraged, but also.. relieved tonight? It's over. We made it. The worst season(s) of our lives have come to a close.



Norcal Illini on March 01 @ 12:22 AM CST

I keep longing for a repeat of the '83-'84 seasons. Outright B10 championship in football and Rose Bowl and B10 co-champions in basketball with an elite 8 appearance (probably a final four if we didn't have to play Kentucky on their home court in the Regional final). It has happened before, but will it even happen again?

Even with the 4-14 B1G record in basketball, this team was so much more fun to watch than the last four years of stagnant ball screen offense. My main concerns going forward are whether Underwood can recruit bigs good enough to keep the opponents' bigs from going off and whether the pressure defense will be successful in the B1G. One troubling pattern was how often we would end up with 6 fouls before the under 16 timeout in the second half. It's almost like the refs get together at halftime and decide to start calling every ticky tack foul on Illinois. But we also seem to bring out the best in at least one of the opponent's players (like Bohannon and Garza today). Even with these flaws, I have more hope for the future in basketball than I do with football.

Sweetchuck13 on March 01 @ 08:15 AM CST

Don't forget 2001 - outright B10 title in football (on Thanksgiving!) and a shared title in basketball (on our way to a #1 seed and AZ's 56 free throws in the E8).

I agree this team was much better to watch - simply because with Groce's teams you often knew before the game that we simply had no chance to win. This team never quite got there to pull off a big win, but they always hung tough. The biggest concern for me is stopping the lulls where we'd give up a huge run and our offense goes to crap for about 5-6 minutes. If we fix that, that's a huge improvement right there. And our defensive rotations need a lot of work - our players simply don't have good awareness off the ball.

1970 John on March 01 @ 07:38 AM CST

Not to hijack this thread, but maybe there really is a Curse of the Chief. Don’t forget whatever hopes we might have had for WBB were dashed for this year. At least there was volleyball...and can Whitman make varsity hockey work? It sucks to see Penn State magically arrive. Isn’t there an And I alumni what do you have pockets to make it work for us?

Alaskan Illini on March 01 @ 07:58 AM CST

I had hopes for this team, but reality says we got what we were supposed to get this year. The "experts" said we'd be lousy, because they know what it takes to succeed in the BIG. I'm hopeful for the coming years . . . because I believe we're headed the right direction. I'm hopeful mostly because I don't think I can bear the results we've had for the last decade plus . . .

212Daniel on March 01 @ 10:39 AM CST

"at least" our long '17-'18 nightmare is over; 4 total B1G victories-FB, MBB, & WBB. 4 wins-43 losses....let that sink in. My Q --is the UI Athletic Dept viable with this situation? I believe we at "hard core" support. So can current ticket revenue, TV revenue, and the occasional big donor UI currently gets, support the Dept? I've heard they'll be roughly $10M in the hole this academic yr. It was $6.2M last yr. I do not see any of the 3 programs being significantly better next yr or even 2 yrs; (unless BU has a miracle this Spring) so, ticket revenue won't change much & is that overall financial picture viable? I hate to imply so negative an outlook; I'm hopeful. But this isn't looking good. The article goes back to '78; I've been attending since Butkus/Downey. This seems the worst. Our firm used to buy season FB tickets; not anymore; couldn't give them away. I haven't paid more than $10 for a football ticket since we dropped the season tickets. Still have MBB tickets but when I can't go, now hard to find takers for those. Winning cures all ills; maybe next yr. But I am serious about how long Whitman can keep all the balls in the air??? apologies for the pun

orangejulius on March 01 @ 12:21 PM CST

Let's face it - it's hard to recruit nationally to Central Illinois. Peoria's not producing like it used to. We're still losing way too many recruiting battles. That's why we need a coach who can sell, sell sell. I'm not convinced Underwood is that guy.

1970 John on March 01 @ 03:57 PM CST

So Lincoln is where all the cool kids wanna be?

orangejulius on March 01 @ 05:17 PM CST

It's also hard to recruit there for basketball, but it has amazing facilities and incredible fan support. Not to mention a great football tradition, which can't hurt.

Bear8287 on March 02 @ 02:50 AM CST

Rutgers 76 - Indiana 69.



HiggsBoson on March 05 @ 01:17 PM CST

Reports this morning that Mark Smith is transferring. That's disappointing, if true. I saw some promise in his game.

PapaDels4me on March 05 @ 01:19 PM CST

Yup, seems like it is true. Too bad, because he seems to have a lot potential. But if he doesn't want to be here and doesn't want to work the way BU wants players to work, then it might be for the best. Wish him the best.

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