Haven't we seen this story unfold before? The Fighting Illini get out to a fast start to the season, just to watch it all unravel during the Big Ten portion of the season. Oh wait, that was just last year, wasn't it? Well, the Illini are once again seeing their season derail, only this time it is more of a rapid fall than it was last season. Wins over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State seem like a distant memory, and one can only wonder what has happened to the team that made Illini Nation once again proud to wear the Orange and Blue. I have a few observations on what might be happening, and if you will indulge me for a minute, I will give you my thoughts.
First of all, let us remember that this is still the players that Bruce Weber recruited to Illinois, and minus Meyers Leonard, is the same team that tanked down the stretch last season, losing 12 out of their final 14 games, and which ultimately led to Weber's firing at the end of the season. One can point to the Purdue game last season as the turning point of the season, but it started much earlier than that. The last game that the Illini played well in was a 79-74 upset of then #5 Ohio State, the game that Brandon Paul scored 43 points in. To make a point here, the Illini defeated the Buckeyes, who were once again ranked in the top ten 74-55, and things were looking good around Illini Nation. But then came Minnesota, which was an expected loss, as was the game at Wisconsin. The Illini looked very lethargic in Madison, getting down 14-0 out of the gate and never fully recovered, losing badly 74-51. Wondering how they would respond to the Wisconsin loss, Coach John Groce tried to avoid any discussion that the team was losing focus and thinking about what happened last year. Then came Northwestern, who was without their two best players, so you figured it was an easy win. You figured wrong, as the Illini came out looking much like they did against the Badgers, losing at home in stunning fashion 68-54. The loss has changed expectations once again, and a team that looked like it was headed to the NCAA Tournament now may in fact be NIT bound, and that is a stretch now. I say this because the next game on the schedule, Nebraska (Tues. Jan. 22, 7:30 pm CT, BTN) lurks, and we all know what happened last year when the Illini traveled to Lincoln. Yep, you guessed it, an embarrassing loss 80-57 that pretty much drove the final nails in the Weber regime in Champaign. One can hope that the Illini will find a way to bounce back against the Cornhuskers, but after that game, the schedule gets really tough. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Big Ten is going to be a roller coaster ride this season, but the Illini need to jump on the ride and stop watching it go by again and again.
This team doesn't have much talent. After Paul, the Illini are just a bunch of bit role players that may or may not be Big Ten caliber. Again, a Weber problem that Groce has had to deal with. Guys like Tyler Griffey, D. J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams have had their moments as Illini players, but they cannot bring it consistently night after night. Then there are guys like Mike Shaw, Myke Henry and Devin Langford, who have all been given their chance at one time or another, but haven't been able to do it on a regular basis. Knowing he had no true point guard coming into the season, Groce has tried to mold Abrams or Paul into that role, but has had limited success at it. The recruits that he has coming next season might be able to fill the role, but at this time it is just too early to tell. After starting out the season at 12-0, the Illini now have lost 4 out of their last 5 games and now stand at 14-5 overall, but sinking rapidly in the Big Ten at 1-3. Grab a life preserver!
Better things are happening with Matt Bollant and the women's basketball team, as they have won 3 out of their last 4 games, including 2 in a row on the road for the first time in a few years. The Illini stand at 10-7 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten and are coming off a 62-52 win over Nebraska on Thursday night in Lincoln, behind 19 points by Adrienne GodBold, and yet another double-double by Karisma Penn, who had 12 points and 18 rebounds. The Illini will return home to the Assembly Hall on Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to Champaign (2:00 pm CT, No TV). With the way that the women are playing as of late, we may very well be talking about them playing in March, and not the men. The Matt Bollant era is off to a successful start, and it only should get better once he gets his own players to campus.
Since it is the off-season for Illini football, it doesn't mean that they are not in the news. The rumors were true about Bill Cubit being named the new offensive coordinator, replacing Chris Beatty, who was fired last month. Cubit comes to Illinois from Western Michigan, where he was fired after the season in 2012. Cubit led the Broncos to wins over several Big Ten schools during his tenure in Kalamazoo, including a win over the Illini in 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit. He knows the conference rather well, and should be a breath of fresh air for a team that saw a disastrous end to the end of their season. I'm seeing a trend here.