Women’s basketball had been an intercollegiate sport at the University of Illinois for some time when a fellow named Leo Hana was put in charge of launching a men’s team in 1905.
Hana got things going with an opening victory over the Champaign High School team. The 71-4 score indicates the Illini probably could have picked better competition.
But it was a start. And before the next game against Indiana a “professional” coach, Elwood Brown, was placed in charge. By the time that first season ended, the record was 6-8, which was considered a reasonable beginning given the fact that two of the team’s better players were lost during the season.
The next season would be better, folks agreed.
Ah, but such was not the case after F.L. Pinckney took over as coach for the 1906-07 season.
After defeating the mighty Peoria YMCA 38-19 in the season opener, Illinois proceeded to lose the remaining 10 games including eight in conference play. A 42-3 loss at Minnesota was particularly painful.
Until Monday, that 1906-07 team’s 0-8 conference record was never duplicated as a measure of league futility. But this 2017-18 Illini team became the first group since Coach Pinckney’s team to begin a season with eight straight Big Ten losses, matching that 0-8 start with an 87-74 loss to No. 6 Michigan State at the State Farm Center.
Welcome to the kind of history no one wants to be a part of.
If you knew nothing else about these teams, picking the probable winner would have been easy Monday the minute each team jogged onto the floor.
Michigan State’s roster includes six players 6-foot-8 or taller. Illinois has three.
Michigan State’s roster has six players who weigh at least 235 pounds. Illinois has one.
When Michigan State grabs a rebound and bursts the other way, it’s like a pack of greyhounds flying in pursuit of the rabbit. Illinois runs like a bunch of terriers.
Bigger, stronger and faster still matters in sports and when the discussion turns to why Illinois is playing catchup in the Big Ten, just look at these two teams standing next to one another. Just look at the varsity standing next to the junior varsity.
Men against boys.
That’s an issue that must be remedied over time, by recruiting a different type of athlete.
Meanwhile, the Illini brought the one thing that can’t be influenced by height, strength or speed. They brought incredible heart and energy and channeled it through their defense and by forcing 15 first-half turnovers, Illinois hung close. The 25 turnovers for the game were a season high for the Spartans.
Eventually, however, Michigan State vacuumed up nearly every rebound, uncorked a dizzying assortment of alley-oop dunks and the varsity pulled away from the JV in the second half.
Michigan State shot 68.2 percent for the game, confirming the theory that sticking your arm through the hoop with the ball in your hand is a very high percentage shot. Michigan State soared high over the Illini and dunked it 10 times.
A loss is a loss but I got the impression fans appreciated the effort Illinois brought and probably wondered why they didn’t bring it Friday at Wisconsin.
Until a different caliber of athlete arrives, Illinois will have to make do with extraordinary effort and the turnover-forcing nature of Brad Underwood’s defense. It’s what this team does best. And it’s what has to be the foundation of whatever comes next.
But as the gifted Spartans reminded us, building this program with bigger, stronger, faster athletes is a much-needed part of the equation, too. The sooner that starts to change, the better.