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When you drive to Lincoln, Nebraska and back - drove there Friday, drove back Saturday - you have a lot of time to think. Between 8:00 am on Friday and 8:00 pm on Saturday I was driving for... 15.5 of those 36 hours?
I don't really mind it. I've always told people that I could so easily adapt to the truck driver life. Those men and women drive 2,500 miles per week. 1,040 miles in 36 hours is nothing.
But you do have a lot of time to think. You can only listen to so many podcasts, only shuffle that playlist so many times before you're sick of every song. So I'll often turn everything off and just sit there and think. (And drive, of course.)
On this trip, especially on the way back, it hit me that I need to zoom way out. I need to put my finger on the mouse wheel and roll down and roll down until I can see the entire earth on the map. When I do that, here's what I'm looking at: Illinois basketball is in the top-5, competing for a Big Ten title, and in the hunt for a Final Four. I know you know that - I knew that - but I feel like I appreciated it for the first time yesterday. Like, felt it in my bones.
This is where I'd usually get all "see, you younger fans might not understand...", but I feel like this is something that every Illini fan understands. Either you're a young fan who heard stories and don't understand why your fandom never included a Dee & Deron or Kenny & Nick, or you're an older fan who lived it and simply can't believe that 2013 was our last NCAA Tournament appearance. Whether you lived it or you read about it, you're fully aware that we were a top-15 college basketball program for a quarter century until we were sent to wander in the wilderness, being punished, apparently, for disobedience and unbelief.
If you want to know what the wilderness looked like, I tweeted this graphic last week:
That's our KenPom ranking every season from 2002 to this year. Let's talk about it.
First off, the #125 in 2016 does need an asterisk. Not a full asterisk, but maybe a half asterisk. That would not have been some great season, but without injuries it's probably a straight line from 39 in 2013 to 66 in 2017. The (partial) reason for the drop to 125 in 2016: Tracy Abrams ruptured his Achilles and missed the season, Leron Black played eight games and then missed the rest of the season with a knee injury, Mike Thorne missed the rest of the season after a Thanksgiving-weekend injury, Kendrick Nunn missed eight weeks with a thumb injury, and what might have been the 60th-best team became the 125th-best team.
Even being generous towards that season, the trend could not be more clear. It's pretty neat and tidy, really:
- Last two years of Bill Self: 8 and 5 (average 6.5)
- Bruce Weber with Self's players: 13, 2, and 9 (average 8.0)
- Bruce Weber with his own players: 36, 51, 25, 57, 18, and 76 (average 43.8)
- John Groce: 39, 53, 61, 125, 66 (average 68.8)
- Brad Underwood: 102, 84, 30, 5 (average of 44.2 but that's a bit unfair given that he decided to re-pour the foundation)
So this is very clear to me. We can just use the averages and point to the type of seeds those teams generally receive. We were a protected seed program (top four seeds) under Self. A protected seed program while Weber had Self's players. A perennial bubble team the final six years of Weber. And a wrong-side-of-the-bubble team under Groce. Stretch this out further and Illinois was a protected seed program under Henson, then a good-side-of-the-bubble team under Henson after Bruce Pearl, and then a climbing-our-way-back-to-the-top program under Kruger (6-seed, 5-seed, losing season, 4-seed).
I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know. I'm simply setting up my journey leading up to my drive home yesterday. I can get so wrapped up in "how did we almost lose to Nebraska?" and "Giorgi, Curbelo, Da'Monte, and Grandison didn't score, and that means we're in big big trouble on this upcoming three-game road trip" that I lose the fact that we've climbed all the way back to being the #5 team in the committee's eyes on February 13th. Maybe it's the fact that I've been so focused on getting back in the Tournament to end that horrific streak that my "I love my team" side wasn't allowed to truly celebrate being top-5 mid-February.
If I could sum up my thoughts from the drive home, they were basically this: "Ayo saved us from one of the worst losses of my lifetime and that might mean trouble on the horizon but my God do I love this team". Ayo sat down at the Nike Store in Chicago in October of 2017 and promised to bring Illinois basketball back to prominence and that's exactly what he did. I've spent so much time the last 15 years wondering if we're back or if we're on our way back or if we'll ever get back and on the drive home it was almost "wow, I think we've been back for a decent amount of time now without me even realizing it".
Here's a better way to say it. Driving to Nebraska, I still had this "but after Ayo and Kofi leave do we really have enough of a foundation to sustain this because if this is just a one-year thing I will absolutely hate that because don't tease me I want Illinois basketball back". Driving home, I didn't care. What Ayo has done these last two games, the way he and Kofi have raised their play this season, the development of the Curbelo-Miller-Hawkins class - I'm back to feeling about Illini basketball like I used to feel about Illini basketball and I kind of don't care if that meets some textbook definition of "back" or not. All that matters right now is that the long-forgotten feelings have returned. Affection. Adulation. Appreciation.
From that place, I don't really fear this tricky three-game road trip next week. I'm not even worried about barely beating Nebraska. I'm just fully focused on the thread that leads from Ayo at the Nike Store to Kofi at the Florida Atlantic game to Saturday's "Illinois is the top 2-seed, the #5 team on our list". Selection Sunday is four weeks from today, and I cannot wait.
The day Josh Whitman fired John Groce, he stood at the podium and talked about what State Farm Center was like 10 years ago. And then he said "if we're not careful, it will be 30 years ago". Well, it's four years later, and here we are, #5.
Today, I'm just so grateful for that. A big thank-you to everyone involved in this turnaround.
Now let's go make a deep tourney run.