So much defending. So much getting behind my keyboard and doing my best William Wallace... "hold... Hold... HOLD". "Let him rebuild the roster - Weber left nothing", I said. "There are so many injuries, we can't really evaluate this product", I screamed. After the fall from grace under Bruce Weber, I wanted to give John Groce the fairest of fair shakes. So I did. And we're somehow worse.
That 2013/14 team where I just shrugged my shoulders and said "we had three returning players + two transfers + freshmen so of course it will be a struggle"? It feels like that team would destroy this team. I said "hold hold hold" until Groce had an experienced team of his own players, and the payoff was non-existent.
I was totally and completely serious before the season about this team having the experience and talent to win 23 games. I absolutely did run through the Big Ten schedule and find 12 wins. Five seniors, a legit go-to scorer, talented, top-50 freshmen like Leron and JCL becoming sophomores - that's a recipe for 20+ wins just based on the raw material.
And we're 14-12 (4-9).
Not just that, but we're... boring? Yes, we did have that big run to cut it to five (at home against 13-12 Penn State, I should mention), so the crowd did have something to cheer about in the second half (even though I saw at least 100 people leave with 10 minutes remaining), but in the first half, this place was dead. Nothing to get exicted about, no big runs, no defensive stops - just a game of basketball between two middling teams going nowhere.
Actually, I shouldn't say that. Penn State - they don't have any seniors - Penn State has a chance to be good next year. Those freshmen are really good. Dare I say it? Penn State is a team on the rise. And Illinois - The University Of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team - is still in decline. Going on 11 years now.
Remember the emotions you went through when we lost to Penn State at home in 2006? Remember the disbelief? We had lost, what, 3 home games in five years at that point? I remember sitting in this certain chair at my old house just absolutely stunned that we lost at home to Penn State.
Now? It's not in any way surprising. Well, I guess it is to me. I still don't value the "coaching" side of things enough and so I sit in disbelief that what I observe to be talented players not producing. I feel the same way about Ohio State this year. That's a very talented roster - why can't they win?
Larue had another great comment last week under my "Creativity" post:
I'll go back to Self's assertion that you score 35% of your points from what you draw up, and 65% from talented guys making plays. None of that to excuse the coaching, which impacts every area in multiple ways, but if you want creativity on the court I think you mostly have to find it and recruit it.
That's what blows my mind. That's why I wanted to give John Groce a fair shake. I didn't think there was much left on the roster when Groce took over (besides the seniors), so I wanted to give him time to find his guys. Going into this season, I did that little exercise where I looked at the composite ranking for every Big Ten player and found that Illinois ranked #3 in the conference when it comes to "talent" (on paper at least). Yes, recruiting evaluations can be wrong, but when you run those numbers for every school, I'd say 22 of the top-25 teams in "on-paper talent" are headed to the tournament. We're not.
Which means I've reached the end of the fair shake. Every time I screamed "hold, hold" it was pointing towards this season, and then this season arrived and everything fell our way. The Big Ten is bad (did you see the preliminary Sweet 16 today with zero Big Ten teams?), and it was right there to be taken advantage of, and we had the experienced roster to do it, and we fell flat on our faces.
My emotion right now is very similar to the Northwestern football game in 2015 (you know, "not ideal" day). I was so upset because I felt like our administration had failed our players. There they were, playing their hearts out, trying to get in a bowl, and we're kicking coaching decisions down the road, eventually promoting the son of the head coach to offensive coordinator (and giving him a 400% raise). The adults failed the kids.
And here, with this team, I see it again. It's so not fair that Malcolm Hill will play his entire Illini career without getting to the NCAA Tournament one time. I hate that Tracy fought back through two full years of injury rehab just for a season like this. I'll go to my grave believing the pieces were here for this team to put together a run in this Big Ten. And this head coach couldn't make it happen.
Honestly, when the season is over and he loses his job, there's no way that John Groce can say that he didn't receive a fair shake. Even after missing the tournament for three straight years - absolutely unheard of in Champaign - he was given one more year to turn it around. And he had a roster full of talent and experience to do it. And, barring an Big Ten Tournament run, we're now officially eliminated on February 11th.
You know that I listen to classical music when typing out postgame posts from the pressbox or press row, right? Well, the music in my ears right now is so incredibly fitting. It's Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony ("Pathetique"). His last, which premiered nine days before his death. The final movement is very dark. Some have theorized that he sensed his impending death and wrote it as some type of requiem. It more or less gets softer and softer until it fades away on a dark B-minor chord. The next thing you know, after three brilliant, exciting movements, it ends in a very dark tone, simply fading away.