This was such a tease. Completely out of it three weeks ago, suddenly we sweep Northwestern, win on the road at Iowa and Nebraska, beat Michigan State, and we're right on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament. And then loss loss and it's over. Bubble burst. Ship sailed. Coach... gone?
John Groce had every opportunity to win this season. Josh Whitman could have Cubited him last year at this time, but he chose to keep him. Leron Black returned from injury/suspension, Tracy Abrams was granted a sixth year, Mike Thorne was granted a sixth year, and still we could not win. The two freshmen, Kipper Nichols and Te'Jon Lucas, both played well above their ranking... and we still could not win. The Big Ten was not the Big Ten of old - it was supposed to be Indiana/Purdue/Wisconsin but it turned out to pretty much be one ranked team (Purdue) and a bunch of question marks... and we still could not win.
Basically, Minnesota had our season. That's 8-23 (2-16) last year Minnesota, by the way. They took advantage of a down Big Ten and will now be dancing. We got everyone back (including three players from season-ending injuries), put forth a team with five seniors... and went from 15 wins to 18 wins.
I'm not sure a coach on the hot seat could have a better opportunity. Yes, he lost Kendrick Nunn, but other than that, he had every player returning, a down Big Ten, five seniors, a second-team All-Conference player, an extremely winnable schedule with only one game against each of the top four teams in the conference... and we still could not win.
I knew Michigan would be tough today (as I mentioned in the Back & Forth post). They've been one of the best teams in the Big Ten the last month. If I see them as a seven-seed across from a questionable two-seed in my bracket, I'm picking Michigan. But still, that only means that we had an opportunity for a statement win. The path was clear - beat Michigan, beat Purdue, dance. And now it's off to the NIT (again).
After the game, I tweeted a list of our NCAA seeds the last 35 years. The biggest thing that struck me when compiling it: the bubble years. In the seasons that I put in that tweet - 1983 through 2017 - there were two bubble years in the first 24 years. We missed the tournament in 1991 and 1992 (probation years) and then missed again in 1999 (lost all five starters after 1998), but for the rest of those 24 years, there were two years on the bubble: 1995 (we made it in) and 1996 (we went to the NIT). Every other year we were safely in the tournament with zero sweat on our brow come March 1st.
In the last 11 seasons? We've been on the bubble EIGHT TIMES. We were safely in back in 2009, and we were completely out in 2008 and 2016. But the other eight years we were on the bubble. EVERY YEAR. Eight of eleven seasons hanging on game after game, hoping that we might just win enough to get in. In 2007, 2011, and 2013, we did get in. In 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, and now 2017, our bubble burst.
Do you know how exhausting that is? (Wait - why am I asking you? Of course you know how exhausting that is.) Finally, I thought, we'd have a season where we'd be safely in. Undefeated December, undefeated February, we can win 23 games (you know, like Minnesota just did) and be safely in the tournament (with Malcolm making a push for Big Ten Player of the Year).
Instead, Malcolm will now finish his career without a single NCAA Tournament game. That's so unfair to him. I feel like I did after the Northwestern football game in 2015 (the day Cubit was extended) - the adults have failed the kids. With a player like Malcolm Hill as the centerpiece, John Groce should have been able to build a team that would be safely in the tournament. Maybe even four teams. Such a team was never built, and Malcolm (and Mav) will never get that chance. Tracy at least got to dance once. Malcolm - our fourth leading scorer in school history - will only watch on TV.
Which means that fun little stat - since 2008, the other 64 Power Five teams have had at least one eight-win football season or at least one Sweet 16 - will continue for another year. And with a football team that has eight seniors next fall and a basketball team that has zero seniors next winter, it's likely that this streak will continue for yet another year. Illinois - the worst Power Five school in the country for a decade.
John Groce was given every opportunity (and more than eight million dollars) to build the Illinois basketball program over the last five seasons. And after a great start, it has fizzled to nothing. We will now graduate five seniors and embark on yet another roster overhaul next season.
Likely with a new coach.