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Illinois at Wisconsin

Wisconsin's Ethan Happ, left, battles Illinois' Mark Alstork, center, and Matic Vesel for a ball during the second half of their Big Ten Conference game Friday in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won 75-50.

Commenting on University of Illinois sports has been a challenge for some time because there are stretches when the narrative just doesn’t change. Unless, of course, you provocatively change it by suggesting it’s time to soak the program in gasoline and strike a match.

Sorry, despite plenty of urging on social media and the number of people who would like to see a bonfire, I’m just not a strike-the-match kind of guy.

Still, scorched earth remedies are tempting and it crossed my mind Friday night when the Illini basketball team played its worst game of the year, seemed to expend a minimum amount of energy doing it and limped out of the Kohl Center in Madison feeling mighty blue.

A 75-50 loss to the worst Wisconsin team in 20 years was the low point in a season that has produced an 0-7 Big Ten record and brought criticism to every Illini player and coach not named Trent Frazier.

In a world where every fan with a voice or internet access has a strong opinion, thousands of angry critics weighed in with two thumbs down late Friday.

We may disagree on many things, but even the coaches and players agree that Friday night’s game was a colossal clunker. Illinois stunk. No debate. But now what?

Obviously, Brad Underwood’s optimistic master plan has encountered more troubles than he ever imagined. Veterans are inconsistent, most freshmen are running uphill on the learning curve and many of his lessons don’t make it successfully onto the court once game day rolls around.

It could be argued that Friday night’s 25-point loss could be the slap in the face this team needs. A jarring wakeup call. Maybe it will be.

But who can guarantee another one isn’t coming Monday night when Illinois plays host to Michigan State, a deep, skilled team with more talent than Illinois at every position?

It was telling that sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas did not play Friday even though Underwood said he was available. That makes two games Lucas missed due to a suspension and a third because Underwood can’t believe a player would so selfishly to get himself suspended in the first place.

Just a guess, but I’ll be the least surprised person in the world if next season’s roster does not include Lucas and quite possibly one more current veteran. Changes are coming.

That would be fine if there were more 2018 recruits waiting in the wings than just Ayo Dosunmu. Until Underwood locks down two or three more recruits, talking about a brighter future seems to lack some punch.

Illini AD Josh Whitman was in Madison for Friday night’s game and it’s amazing how many times since he took the job in February of 2016 that Whitman has had to strike a stoic public stance while his football or basketball team turned in a performance that made most people cringe.

But Whitman knows football and basketball needed major overhauls and that patience would be part of the process. A lot of patience. And patience is not an easy thing to embrace.

Whitman is strong enough to stand tall. He believes in his plan and won’t scrap the plan just because being patient is difficult. Fans, on the other hand, might just check out until an alert sounds that says it’s safe to come out of hiding.

On Saturday, football coach Lovie Smith’s new offensive coordinator, Rod Smith, talked about revving up an offense that desperately needs more horsepower. Lovie’s new tight ends coach, Cory Patterson, talked about helping the program making a recruiting impact in St. Louis, where he was a successful high school head coach.

After listening to these excited coaches talk about the better times ahead, it felt like the Illini football program had picked up a first down for the first time in three months.

It would be nice if it felt like the basketball program was moving in a forward direction, too, offering up some tangible progress that could be seen and felt. But it’s not. Not yet.

Underwood wasn’t kidding when he said his own stubbornness to orchestrate this turnaround would be more resolute than any doubter who didn’t believe it would happen.

Friday’s game will only make him dig in deeper and given time, I still believe he’ll get it done.

There’s no doubt, though, that the process is more painful than either Underwood or Whitman believed.

​Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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