Media Day State of Mind

Media days are generally harmless, and can usually be as fun or mundane as you want them to be if you’re asking the questions or giving the answers. Unless, of course, you were Illinois basketball in 2015. [Read more…]

Fill the Void

As the game against Western Michigan got away from Illinois football on Sept. 17, I did something I’ve felt the need to do far too often during Illini football games over the course of my life: I turned it off.

I know I wasn’t alone, and I’m positive that a similar ritual has been repeated by Illini fans over and over throughout the decades of football inconsistency — if they even turned the game on in the first place. Luckily for fans and the Illini athletic department, the basketball program has mostly carried fan interest, rarely dipping below a level that wasn’t at least mildly compelling and often performing well enough to enter the national conversation, where football so rarely ventures. It’s why Illinois is still considered a “basketball school” and why every fall the first football loss always sparks a race to Twitter to see who can fire off the first “is it basketball season yet?” tweet.

As we all know, Lovie Smith has injected a huge amount of interest and excitement back into Illini football. Unfortunately, it also looks like we’ll have to wait a couple more years before Smith is able to put a truly competitive product on the field. The fan base has shown a great level of understanding and acceptance about what needs to be done to get the Illini football program looking like it did against North Carolina on a consistent basis — massive hype, sold-out crowd, electric atmosphere on campus from sunrise to sunset — while also expecting improved on-field play down the road. But barring a major turnaround from the team that mustered three rushing yards and surrendered 34 points against Western Michigan, this season is unlikely to draw much additional widespread investment from the fan base this year. Next season figures to be even worse.

If by now you’re confused about why I’ve written three paragraphs about Illini football on the heels of a basketball column from Robert, I promise I’m going to connect this to Illinois hoops here in a second. Basically I’m trying to make the point that Illinois football has been turn-your-TV-off-mid-game bad for most of my life, and that despite Lovie bringing very real hope back to the program, the product on the field could still be borderline unwatchable in the short-term. I’ve rarely felt that a similar statement has applied to Illinois basketball.

Maybe it applied in 2007-08, when coincidentally Illinois had an exhilarating football season to offset the stench from a hoops team that went 16-19. Those games down the stretch of Bruce Weber’s final year in 2011-12 really weren’t worth watching either, but we knew then that a change at the top was imminent. Last season with John Groce’s injury-ravaged roster was another one of those atypical periods when the games often became extremely tough to absorb. Of course, I watched every minute because it was my job. I’m as invested in Illinois basketball as they come, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have shut off multiple games last season if I was watching in fan-mode. I’m sure the multiple double-digit blowouts on ESPN were enough to push even the most battle-tested Illini fans to find the remote or keep them away from State Farm Center.

Fortunately, this upcoming season should play out much differently than the last, since on paper this looks like a pretty good team and should be worth paying attention to game in and game out. This isn’t a column predicting their fate — I’ve already written a couple of those, penciling them into the NCAA tournament with room to spare — I do think it’s worth noting just how important this season is, not just in the scope of Illinois basketball, but in the scope of Illinois athletics as well.

Josh Whitman has done nearly everything right since beginning his duties as Illinois’ AD in March, including retaining Groce despite the losing and scandals that have plagued his past couple of seasons. In my opinion, hiring Smith and keeping Groce were unequivocally the correct moves considering the resources available to Whitman at the time, but they certainly didn’t come without risks. Whitman knew it would take a while for Smith to get Illini football on its feet and is counting on Groce to get the job done in the meantime. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how Groce and his guys could benefit from operating in the football program’s shadow for a while, but now that doesn’t look like it will be possible. If football continues on the path they began to carve for themselves throughout their last two games, Illini eyes will again turn to hoops early and with increased anticipation.

To be clear, I’m not saying one program is tied in any way to the other in terms of performance on the court or field. But there are some implications across both programs that ride on the success of this basketball season. It’s important to keep in mind that attendance is suffering in both revenue sports. Football numbers hovering in the 40,000s is nothing new, but basketball dipped to depressing depths last season. The average home attendance at State Farm Center in 2015-16 was 12,723, which is the lowest mark since 1977-78, according to The News-Gazette. That’s not ideal when trying to lock in suite contracts and attract season ticket-holders to a sparkling and renovated arena.

The hangover seems to have carried into this season as well, as the ticket office is currently offering a floating ticket package to every home basketball game for $125, or an average of about seven bucks a game. While I commend the ticket office and marketing department for working together to get fans to both football and basketball games at affordable prices at a time when demand is low, healthy revenue sports programs generally don’t roll out promotional mini-plans and price-slashing specials year after year. Not to mention Whitman will likely have to do some serious legwork to fundraise for the rumored renovation of Memorial Stadium’s south end zone, which should come with a nine-figure price tag. The more wins deep-pocketed donors see across revenue sports, the easier such a project becomes to pull off.

There’s also the subject of Groce’s job security that has hovered for some time now, which could be a drain on the entire fan base if it is forced into the conversation again. Being six weeks removed from the season, there isn’t much to talk about at this point besides the notion that the NCAA tournament should be the baseline for a successful campaign in 2016-17. That’s just reality when you fall short three straight years at a school that should do better. If the Illini appear to be headed toward a fourth consecutive tournament absence, the hot seat discussion will heat up again, and the amount of leeway given to Groce will likely depend on how he closes an already-solid 2017 recruiting class. Groce knows this better than anyone, and he knows that the direction of his program could ride on him clearing that NCAA tournament hurdle this season. I don’t want to consider yet how the program and fan base could splinter if he doesn’t.

Simply put, Josh Whitman’s job becomes a lot less stressful if Illinois basketball can put together a respectable season in ’16-17. Illini fans really aren’t asking for much right now, but desperately need a good team to fill that void. They’re starving for success, and the incredible turnout at the North Carolina football game illustrated how much passion is bubbling beneath the surface. And it’s not just the leadership at the top of the football program and athletic department that’s been upgraded lately. The game day experience in both sports has improved immensely in the last five years. The digital media team is top-notch and facilities are finally being dragged into the 21st century. Despite the turbulence within the athletic department during the last several years, Illinois truly feels like it’s prepared to return to national relevancy in athletics and is just waiting for the results to arrive.

If Illini hoops can generate some excitement this season and some momentum heading into next, Groce’s program will stand on its own as a point of pride for fans with tremendous potential to flourish going forward, while also serving as the perfect buffer against bad football while Lovie gets his machine up and running across Kirby Avenue. If not, we could be staring down the barrel of a couple more uncomfortable years of Illini revenue sports. With massive reserves of goodwill now built up, Whitman will have plenty of time to build Illinois athletics into a powerhouse. Things will just go a lot more smoothly in the short-term if his confidence in Groce pays off.

So for the sake of the fan base and for the sanity of Josh Whitman, Illinois basketball needs to deliver this season. I think they will, but I also think it’s fair to consider the ramifications if they don’t. Because in major college athletics, there are football schools, there are basketball schools and there are schools that are lucky enough to be both. You just can’t afford to be neither.


Out of the Spotlight

In the twilight of his fifth recruiting cycle at Illinois, John Groce convinced yet another elite high school talent to spend one of his five NCAA-allotted official visits on the Illini campus. Kris Wilkes out of Indianapolis is a superb talent in the 2017 class, and he made the trip this past weekend for his first official visit. Groce rolled out the red carpet as he always does, but this particular weekend had a little extra Champaign shine on it. [Read more…]

Surviving January

I’m currently apartment hunting, which can be both an exciting and draining endeavor for a recent grad with a low budget in a big city. Looking for lodging as a student at UIUC taught me that (surprise!) things usually aren’t as good as they initially seem on paper. And losing that “student” label has also meant most move-in incentives and leverage over leasing agents are in my rearview mirror. Sure, that rent might look reasonable, but I’ll probably have to pay a large security deposit and move-in fee before I even make the trip to Ikea to shop for furniture. This is no news flash to everyone older than me (and that’s probably most of you), but it’s tricky getting into an immediate groove when there are early roadblocks. [Read more…]

Up Comes Frazier

I’ve never met Trent Frazier, and I’ve never seen him play beyond the YouTube highlights on my laptop. But I’ve already grown to admire the 6-foot-2, 170 pound Florida native, who became the fourth member of John Groce’s 2017 class when he committed to Illinois on Sunday during his official visit to the Illini campus. [Read more…]

Navigating The Aftermath

I just returned from torching my skin on the beaches of southwest Florida for a week, so I apologize for being a few days late reacting to the aftermath of Jordan Goodwin’s decision.

One of Yogi Berra’s most renowned sayings from a lifetime of quirky quips referred to his sport’s frustratingly unpredictable nature:

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing.” [Read more…]

Devil’s Advocate

While Robert is out wandering around football camp, let’s talk some basketball. It’s been a smooth summer overall for John Groce and his staff. On the recruiting trail, they brought 5-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon into the fold and have held the attention of most of their remaining targets in the 2017 class. And their actual players on campus have not only stayed out of trouble, they all seem to have morphed into Bowflex models in the offseason under the tutelage of strength coach Adam Fletcher. [Read more…]

Bye-bye, July

College basketball recruiting is inherently unpredictable. The worst weatherman will usually be more accurate than most recruiting “insiders,” and even coaches themselves are often thrown for a loop. But if John Groce had delivered a detailed PowerPoint presentation to Illini fans on July 1 outlining his goals and objectives — and you wouldn’t believe how many of my undergrad assignments asked us to set goals and objectives — for his busiest month of recruiting season, I’d imagine it would closely resemble how the month actually ended up playing out. [Read more…]

Ride the Wave

Has the Jeremiah Tilmon hysteria worn off yet, now that we’re over a week post-commitment? No? Good. Because the ripple effect from the big man’s decision is still reverberating throughout the college hoops recruiting landscape during its holiest month of the year. [Read more…]

Looks Like University Of Illinois – Jeremiah Tilmon

We needed a big man. We needed a recruiting win. We needed some momentum. Dammit, we needed something good to happen for once. And as I checked my phone on the 7th tee yesterday, huh, suddenly five texts from five different people. Wonder what might have happened. [Read more…]