When the University of Illinois lined up to play Winthrop on Monday night, there was a positive vibe drifting around State Farm Center.
The basketball team was 4-0, albeit against sub-standard competition. There were conversations of excitement following the commitment from East St. Louis big man Jeremiah Tilmon, who now stood at the centerpiece of a promising 2017 recruiting class. I peered into my crystal ball and could see an intriguing team competing for a Big Ten Conference title two years down the road.
The current team had experience, depth and something it hasn’t had in recent years — near perfect health. With the schedule about to bring on tougher teams, the time was right to find out just what this Illini team was all about.
Less than 100 hours later, the vibe crackled with discontent. The mood has grown angry. Even coach John Groce sounds like he’s having to phony up wisps of optimism, straining to point out that freshman Te’Jon Lucas made the most of his trip to Brooklyn.
The truth is, just seven games into the season a fragile and long-frustrated fan base has thrown up its hands in surrender, embarrassed by this gruesome week in which Illinois blew a late 10-point lead to Winthrop, got demolished by West Virginia and wilted down the stretch against Florida State.
A 4-0 record is now 4-3 and hope has evaporated. It would take more than a miracle to salvage this season and Groce’s chance of restoring trust with these fans looks worse than Jaylon Tate trying to single-handedly break the West Virginia press.
How did we get here so quickly?
Many will happily point out that this was not, in fact, a quick deterioration. This is the result of a basketball program in decline for 10 years. This is what happens when recruiting falls off season after season, when serviceable athletes can’t compete against taller, quicker, more dynamic athletes.
This is proof that just two NCAA Tournament wins in 10 seasons means something, as does missing out on the tournament altogether for the last three years.
It means despite the occasional inspirational victory (think Tyler Griffey’s layup to beat No. 1 Indiana in February 2013), Illinois has become a team far more likely to find ways to lose close games than to win them, and that over time, that becomes the identity of a team that is 35-55 in the Big Ten since 2011-12.
It’s awfully early to be giving up on this season when the Thanksgiving leftovers are still fresh in the fridge. But the onus is on this team and this coaching staff to make us believe otherwise.
I no longer believe what I’m told.
You can tell me Jaylon Tate is having a good season. I’ll tell you he’s just good enough to get you beat. I’m done with him. Give me a lot more Te’Jon Lucas and I’ll live with his freshman mistakes.
You can tell me Jalen Coleman-Lands is an elite shooter. I’ll tell you you’re right, but he’ll never be a good basketball player until he can do more than shoot an open 3.
You can tell me Mike Thorne Jr. and Maverick Morgan give the Illini a one-two punch in the middle. I’ll tell you what they’re really good at is standing to the side while opponents run a layup drill straight to the basket. Illinois’ interior defense is dreadful.
You can tell me this team has the experience and grit to win close games. I’ll tell you it’s just the opposite. Not since 2004-05, with the magnificent Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-Augie group, has Illinois had a team with true grit.
The past decade is littered with teams that don’t have the confidence or toughness to consistently win close games against Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue and until something changes, this cannot be more than a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.
I’ll be there, win or lose, the rest of this season and the next. I get paid to do it.
But I feel bad for the people I see at the breakfast buffet at the road hotels, loyally dressed in orange, devoted enough to travel but bewildered in both basketball and football that their loyalty doesn’t earn a more appreciative reward.
It’s not my job to tell you everything will be all right.
It’s this team’s job to make a dramatic and urgent change. But the folks who believe that’s going to happen have dwindled to a very small group. I no longer count myself as one of them.