This has been, by far, the hardest basketball season to write about. It's not the worst season (not by a long shot), but it's probably the hardest one to frame. I know my audience, and I'm at home games and away games, so I'm always trying to hand you some binoculars so you can zoom in on a certain part of the team. This year, for the first time, people are refusing the binoculars.
I haven't written anything since Friday - and in the last week, I've only written about basketball once - because of this. I honestly don't even know what to say. I always have this sense that something I'm writing is necessary, that it needs to be out there, and nothing has felt necessary of late. Most everyone I encounter is viewing this season differently.
There's no question that the game-to-game formula is off. That there's not a sustainable piece to this team like there was the last few years. There are puzzling losses every year (Maryland and Ohio State at home during the Covid season; Marquette and Cincinnati back-to-back last year), but this team can win big (beating #2 Texas in Madison Square Garden) and then immediately lose big (at home, to Penn State, 74-59). Beat NET #5 UCLA by 9 on a neutral court? Lose to NET #58 Missouri by 22 on a neutral court.
(It was right now, when looking up the NET rankings, that I realized I forgot my every-Monday-morning NET team sheet tweet yesterday. So let me go tweet that real quick.)
Where was I? Yes - up and down season. Beat UCLA and Texas on neutral courts to prove we can hang with anyone. Lose to Penn State by 15 and Missouri by 22 to prove that if we don't bring it, we can not only lose but get blown out. Everyone acknowledges that this season looks like an EKG.
It's the "what does that mean?" where I feel like I'm on a completely different planet. And I don't think I can explain it away with some "maybe a lot of these fans in my mentions just started following the team the last 3-4 years and they don't have the perspective of the previous decade." Maybe my meter is broken, but this feels like it goes beyond that. I have a lot of "maybe I just don't understand how people follow sports now?" feelings.
It's rooted in generational stuff, I'm sure. I'm of the generation where a poster dunk means nothing in a game you're losing by 19. There was a validation process to any in-game moment. Are you carrying a highlight card? Well you need to get it validated after the game (with a win). If the card isn't punched with a big W, it's no longer valid.
So when the official school account is tweeting individual Illini highlights while we're losing to Missouri by 35, all I can do is scream about not understanding the world. And when Krush is doing the "oh, oh, OH, OH" thing on some crossover dribble by Terrence Shannon -- while we're losing at home to Indiana -- I just feel like I don't understand how people follow sports. If individual crossover dribbles matter in a game where you're getting completely dominated by Trayce Jackson-Davis and Indiana, I guess the window where I understand sports has expired.
That's part of what makes this so difficult. But the larger part of all this is what I'll call "era perspective." This might be a thing of the past as well, but I'm always basing everything on the current era. I'll try to explain.
There are five general eras for me when it comes to Illinois basketball. I first started paying attention in 1983 as a ten year-old, so this will date back to then. Since 1983, I see these five eras:
I. Never Outside The Top 20 (1983 to 1990)
II. The Bruce Pearl Sanctions (1991 to 1996)
III. The Climb All The Way Back To The Top (1997 to 2006)
IV. The Fall Of Rome (2007 to 2019)
V. We're Baaaaaaack (2020 to present)
Because I lived through II and IV (and maybe it's because I lived through both II and IV and not just IV), I don't think I'll ever lose perspective on another Illini basketball season again. I'll lose faith, sure, but not perspective.
I SWEAR TO YOU this notification just hit the front screen of my phone. Gonna screencap in case it gets deleted later.
This one is so perfect that I get that feeling someone has hacked into my computer, is watching me type this post, and decided to send me a tweet that would be a perfect example of what I'm talking about. I mean, check the timestamps here. I tweeted the NET team sheet at 11:19. Then I wrote a bunch more and paused to reheat my coffee and let the dog out. Then I return, type out the eras, and at 12:06, Dale "Willy" Wilson sends me the perfect example of why it's so difficult to write basketball words right now.
"Don't know when in my over 40 year of Illinois fandom I've ever been more disappointed in a team."
My very first thought is the 2009-10 season. I don't know how this current season will end, so maybe I'll live to regret this, but just like this season, we were #23 in the preseason polls in 2010. And we went to the NIT. That was wildly disappointing. As was the next season when were were #13 preseason (should have been a top-4 seed) but finished 19-13 (9-9) with a 9-seed (and a loss to Kansas in the second round). Given where we were as a program, oh, the previous TWENTY FIVE SEASONS leading up to that one, the one-two punch of preseason hopes being crushed in back-to-back year was about 10 times more disappointing than this current season.
And that's just looking recently. 2002 is probably the most "disappointing" season I've experienced if we just look at expectations. I was (and you were) convinced we were going to win a national title that year. #3 in the preseason polls. Moved to #2 after the first week. In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge the top two games were #2 Illinois vs. #5 Maryland and #1 Duke vs. #7 Iowa. I was convinced that Iowa could beat Duke and we'd be moving to #1 for the first time since the 80's. We lost to Maryland, then lost to Arizona, and then started Big Ten play 4-5. When you're #2 at the beginning of December and then 4-5 in the Big Ten at the start of February, THAT'S disappointment. We were supposed to learn our lesson from the 2001 Elite Eight loss and then charge to a title in 2002. And then we're 4-seed and lose in the Sweet 16.
13-6 (4-4) on January 24th? Yeah, it's not where you expect to be when you're #23 preseason, but it doesn't feel very far off when you look at the roster overhaul. Go back and read the intro I wrote for the basketball preview back in November if you want proof of this, but to me this season was one big test to see if you can return 15% of your scoring but fix it through the transfer portal (Shannon, Mayer, and Dainja) plus the freshmen.
Then we lost Luke Goode (still hasn't played with the broken foot) and a freshman guard who had started 11 games (Skyy Clark taking personal leave) so it's two returnees (Hawkins and Melendez), three transfers (Shannon, Mayer, and Dainja), and three freshmen (Harris, Epps, and Rodgers). Eight players, if there's foul trouble it's another green player (Lieb). Given all of that, 13-6 (4-4) feels about right?
Especially in this Big Ten. There's only one ranked Big Ten team this week (Purdue, back at #1) and then a whole bunch of teams in the 26-40 range. I saw a tweet last week after Nebraska beat Ohio State that said the Big Ten is basically Purdue, 12 mostly equal teams, and Minnesota. Yes, Nebraska will likely finish with 7 conference wins and Michigan State will finish with 12 (or whatever), but that seems mostly correct to me. Purdue found a formula that worked (superstar big man + experienced roster + two freshmen guards who were wildly under-ranked). No one else (like, NO ONE else) has found a working formula yet. (And Minnesota hasn't found anything.)
But that season taking place in the "we're baaaaack" era isn't anywhere close to my top 10 in terms of "disappointing seasons." Was no one a fan in 2014~2017? Am I the only one who remembers 1992? Did someone flash an MIB strobe and erase your memory of 1999 and 2008? 1992 through 1996?
And it's not just Willy. So many of my fan interactions make me feel like I'm talking to a Kentucky fan. They were #4 preseason and started 10-6. If we were #4 preseason and fell to 10-6 (especially after their home loss to NET #277 South Carolina), I'd be debating where that team falls on the disappointing scale. Preseason Final Four team and staring at "will we even make the Tournament?" is a rough spot to be.
This spot? This is a "yeah, hard to maintain excellence after losing Ayo and then Kofi plus Trent/Da'Monte" spot. We were #23 and not #3 preseason for that reason. We've fallen out of the top-25 (with good reason), we're caught in this 12-team middle-of-the-road Big Ten logjam, and we're 13-6. We're in the back half of the schedule now, we have two tent pole wins (UCLA and Texas), and now we'll see what we're made of.
And, for me (and perhaps only for me), I'm thanking my lucky stars that we're in this position and not the "entire decade of the 2010's" position. I spent ten long years with barely any hope. Now, on January 24th with a 13-6 record, I still have tons of hope. Wherever this season lands, it won't be that. I never want to think about that ever again.
But when I go to write words about that, I feel like I'm putting them out into a world that doesn't want to hear them. I've said several times this season that it feels like the fans want the team covered like TMZ would cover some celebrity. Maybe it's just my personal interactions with fans, but this year (and this year alone), everyone wants to know what's really going on with Skyy Clark and what the relationship between Mayer and Underwood is really like. In case you need clarification, the chances of me filming a player leaving practice while walking backwards and asking personal questions is 0.0%. This is college basketball. In my opinion, the only two people who should care about the relationship between Matt Mayer and Brad Underwood are Matt Mayer and Brad Underwood.
All of this is why I've found it so difficult to write about this team. I feel like I'm watching one season and everyone else is watching a different season. I'm not happy being 13-6, but it feels just about right given the starting point, the injury, the player taking a leave of absence, and the conference. Maybe a lot of people expected the Big Ten to be a logjam this year, but I'm not sure anyone expected Penn State and Northwestern to be in the middle of that jam. We're stuck in there with them, and I remain hopeful of a February surge, and my hopeful words are mostly met with.. despair? What's that about?
Maybe I should just say this. As I've said a million times, since I write as a fan, fan interactions are a big part of what I do. I constantly have my thermometer out to see how fans feel about the rotations and the offensive flow/defensive strength.
And this is the first time I can remember getting a reading of "N/A."