The Low Point
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Been waiting a long time to write this one. 11+ years, really. In the first few years of the blog (started in 2009), I wrote several articles (and several tweets) saying "right THERE is the low point for Illinois Basketball". And then we kept digging.
In 2015, I finally decided that I was going to stop looking for the low point. It was useless. Every time I declared us to have bottomed out, we got lower. And it's a good thing, too. Had you told me in 2015 that we'd have 14 and 12-win seasons before the end of the decade, I might have quit.
(I'd never quit. I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful one hundred percent.)
Here's what I declared at the end of that article (from 2015, right after the complete and total flameout to finish the season).
So tonight I'm making a pledge. I'll stop talking about "rock bottom". I'll stop playing out these "and then Darius Paul was the answer in the post and the next season completely turned around" fantasies and just live in the realization that what once was is not anymore. It's possible we haven't reached the bottom yet, so I'll wait to see a consistent climb before I talk about the bottom again.
I mean, how do you feel about recruiting right now? Remember our "if Travis Ford is fired maybe Jawun Evans will reconsider and go to a real program" pipe dream? It sounds so silly now, right? We have these two open scholarships this summer, but it's really, really hard to recruit at the Jawun Evans level with two recent NIT flameouts on the resume.
This is what I mean when I say I'm scared to look down. I've spent six years saying "well, it can't get any worse". We go to the NIT but have to play at Stony Brook because the circus is in town; it doesn't get much worse than that. Our coach had a press conference meltdown, we lost 12 of 14 after being ranked, our coach was fired and we missed the NIT; it doesn't get much worse than that. We played the worst four quarters of basketball - Purdue second half, Michigan game, Alabama first half - since before I was born and failed to reach 20 wins for the second consecutive season; it doesn't get much worse than that.
Um, does it?
It did. After that despondent post, here were the Illini seasons:
I'm so glad I stopped looking for low points. If I hadn't, imagine how many I could have found in those four seasons.
HOWEVER, with 12 Big Ten wins (our most since 2005), a #23 ranking (in March!), and a legitimate shot at sharing the Big Ten title with two games to play (go Rutgers), I think we can now declare that the low point is in the past. Even if this is a one-hit wonder, Underwood loses for two seasons and is fired, the roster improvements (and the current program momentum) suggest that the next coach would take over something that's at a higher point than a few years ago. And that's just a worst-case scenario ending to the Underwood era. The likely outcome is a run of NCAA Tournament teams on the horizon.
So, then... what was the low point? Where did it all bottom out?
First off, given that Underwood appears to be rebuilding it, the easy call is "the moment John Groce went out that door". I know that if I put this on Twitter, that would be the overwhelming answer. Divorcees always answer with "the moment she walked out the door".
But to me, that wasn't the low point. We hit 20 losses last year for the first time ever. It's really hard to declare that the low point happened before your first-ever 20-loss season. With hindsight, sure, we can see that the 2018 roster overhaul was probably necessary. But last season, when losing 21 games, I can assure you that the fanbase was not "hey, things are looking up".
Maybe I should go back. The first time I tweeted "this is the low point" was after we weren't picked for the 2012 NIT. Weber had been fired after losing on Friday of the BTT, Jerrance Howard had been named the interim, we expected to be picked for the NIT with Jerrance coaching the games, and then we weren't picked. I was returning from Florida on a Spring Training trip with some friends and I tweeted that missing even the freaking NIT was the low point for the next 20 years. I was so dumb.
I believe I later clarified in a post that the actual low point couldn't be after the season - it had to be during the blowout loss at 12-18 Nebraska (there's that famous picture of Bruce Weber standing next to a scoreboard in the old Nebraska arena that reads 79-50 with two minutes to go and that was this "it's so, so over" moment for the program). But that wasn't the low point.
Other "this has to be the bottom, right?" moments since then:
- That collapse at the end of the 2015 season. We lead 26-13 at Purdue, closing in on our 10th Big Ten win and a likely NCAA Tournament spot. We're then immediately outscored 35-9 by Purdue and lose that game by five. We go to the Big Ten Tournament and lose to Michigan 73-55 (never even close) to see our bubble pop. We go to the NIT and before we can blink we trail Alabama 41-12 in the first half. Forty one to twelve. Not sure we'll ever see a season collapse like that one.
- The losses to North Florida and Chattanooga in Springfield when the State Farm Center renovations were going on.
- Getting into the preseason NIT and not only losing the run-up game at home (to Winthrop) but also getting destroyed in both games in Brooklyn (West Virginia and Florida State).
- The buzzer-beater loss at Nebraska in Underwood's first season which was the "all these close games, but it's just not gonna happen" moment for the season.
But none of those were the low point. I'm going to tell you the low point. The low point - the bottoming out of Illinois basketball after a 25 year climb and a 12 year plummet - flashed across our screens during the Northwestern game on Thursday. The low point was January 6, 2019.
The Illini are 4-10 (0-3) on the season. The previous three losses were to Missouri (ugh), Florida Atlantic (wait, really?), and Indiana (gah). 4-10 meant that Brad Underwood had begun his Illini coaching tenure with 18 wins and 28 losses. Things were, uh, not looking up.
The next game on the schedule was a date at Northwestern. Thankfully, the wildcats had fallen back to earth after their one NCAA Tournament appearance. They had fallen to 15-17 the next season and were headed for 13-19 in 2018/19 (and maybe 8 wins this season). It was a 4-10 (0-3) start for the Illini, but we could maybe get back on track with a win over Northwestern.
Nope. If you watched the Northwestern game this past Thursday (or, if you're like me, you watched it later), you saw a replay of the low point for Illini basketball on January 6, 2019. Illini up one, 20 seconds left, Northwestern shoots a three, misses, Illini wi... wait, Northwestern got the rebound, kicked it out for another three, hit the three, Illini lose. 4-11 (0-4). Two weeks later, when our loss at Wisconsin dropped us to 5-14, I noted that the season was already over. We could win 12 games in a row and still not make the Tournament. Eliminated in January.
Something else happened on Sunday, January 6, 2019. Kofi Cockburn committed to Illinois. Somehow, a player who had visited for the Florida Atlantic game committed to the Illini. We had our top-35 point guard, and now we had our top-35 big man.
Honestly, from that point forward, things started looking up. After that 5-14 start, the win over a ranked Maryland team in NYC sparked a streak of winning five of our next six. Despite the late season stumble, that momentum carried through to this season and the (current) 12-6 Big Ten record. Kofi has played well above his ranking (Big Ten Freshman of the Year?), Ayo has been dominant, Curbelo and Miller have committed... everything is looking up.
And to me, we can look back on January 6, 2019 as being the bottom of the pit. The low point, officially found.