The Illini lost again today. Minnesota controlled the second half en route to a workmanlike 68-59 win that dropped us to 13-11 overall and 3-8 in Big Ten play. Einstein is famously noted for defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The attribution of the quote is likely apocryphal and it's a terribly overused cliche, but damn if it isn't apt to describe the offensive machinations of this team. Our guards shot a combined 6 of 34 from the field and that about covers today's events. I could analyze more actual basketball stuff, but I'm not seeing much point in that exercise. I could just switch around some names and quotes from any of the January losses and the write-up would be about the same. Instead let's look at the big picture.
Selection Sunday is five weeks away. Of course, Illini fans won't have much cause to tune in to the broadcast, yet that day remains permanently etched on my mental calendar. At this point, though, I'm not exactly sure why.
My Illini brain can't do apathy, and I'm well past anger so I'm left with a sort of bewilderment. I'm bewildered that after a ten year (1996-2006) stretch as arguably one of the top 10 programs in the country, two consecutive coaches conspired over the next decade to steer the program into college basketball abyss. One drove it there and his successor has since lost the keys.
Come March 12 when our name is once again not in the field of 68, it will be the seventh such time out of the last ten tournaments. Three NCAA tournaments in the last decade. Incomprehensible.
We haven't finished above .500 in the conference or played on the weekend in the Big Ten Tournament since 2010. Outside the conference, mid-major schools throughout the Midwest are running circles around our program right now. Schools such as Creighton, Butler, Wichita State, Dayton, Xavier, Northern Iowa all have more NCAA Tourney appearances than us over the past decade. Even Northwestern and Illinois State have jumped ahead of us in the college hoops pecking order this season.
Home attendance continues to dwindle, and the crowd that does show up to the State Farm Center these days has almost an obligatory feel to it. The building hasn't really rocked in over a decade. Even today - the first sellout of the newly renovated State Farm Center. 15K and change. Looked nice and full and orange at tip-off, and you got the sense that it kind of wanted to rock, but its collective heart was never really into it.
Let's face it - we are officially irrelevant. An afterthought. The college basketball equivalent of the Jacksonville Jaguars. We have been for a while, really, but it takes a little time for the mind to process and admit such a sea change.
John Groce said after the game that it's OK to beat him up about the team's struggles, but urged fans not to take it out on the kids because it wears so heavily on them. He's quite right about that. After Malcolm Hill missed a free throw late in the second half, I could almost hear his shoulders slump from press row. The weight he carries is palpable, and it's just criminal that he'll finish his career without playing in a single NCAA Tournament game.
So with his permission granted, I am going to beat up on Coach Groce a bit. In a December Back and Forth with Robert, I offered up a few things I needed to see for me to feel comfortable again with the program direction under the current leadership:
- Avoid a January death spiral (3-7 in January and 0-1 in February. The January spiral has now infected February.)
- Win on the road somewhere besides Rutgers, Northwestern, Penn State, or Nebraska (Forget somewhere else. We'll be lucky to get a road W against even one of those three.)
- Finally beat Wisconsin. (Nope)
Suffice it to say I remain extremely uncomfortable. Still, this was a really hard post for me to write because I like and respect John Groce. I have steadfastly rooted and hoped for him to get the program back on track, but as we near the end of year five in his tenure, we remain hopelessly derailed. He will always be a part of the Illini family, and just like anyone it pains me to see family struggle - especially a good dude like Groce. But that said I think it's kind of over.
Because irrelevance sucks.