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.