Back in December, I imposed an embargo on myself when it came to discussing Illinois basketball. Is it possible to renew/extend it? Yes? Great. But I’ll make just one quick observation.
Watching a talented yet underachieving team go into Welsh-Ryan Arena, go through the motions and end up on the short end of the outcome thanks in part to some inspired play by a bench player from the Balkans? I’ve seen that movie before. Join me in a trip back to January 14, 2004. After leading by 11 at the half, 13th-ranked Illinois completely folded, losing to Northwestern by 10 as Davor Duvancic got Wayne Larrivee all kinds of fired up on ESPN+ (I can’t remember that last part for sure, but a Wednesday night game? Feels right. That’s Wayne’s neighborhood.) Afterwards, Bruce Weber lamented the loss with a verbal shrug:
“Now it’s a question of, do you hang together? Do you have character?” Weber said. “All of the things that I’ve been talking about that have plagued us, somehow we’ve got to find a way to change it.”
Yes, it’s all quite familiar. Do you hang together? Do you have character? I may not know, but what I do know is that those are things I don’t want the coach asking, especially not by the time conference games roll around. I want the coach to know that his team has character and to find a way to bring it to the surface. Of course, Weber and his staff did find a way to “change it,” whatever “it” was. The gaping gulf between that loss and today’s (besides the 7 years, 23 days) is what followed: a staggering run of success that saw Illinois basketball go 73-7 in its next 80 games.
I’m not bringing this up to say that things were bad before and got better, so it’s reasonable to think that this ship will be righted. Rather, it’s the opposite. If you’re a rational person, or at the very least, a rational Illinois fan, you have to recognize that insane 80-game stretch as an outlier. An exception, rather than a rule. Taking that run to the title game out of the mix (which, admittedly, is not totally fair), you’re looking at a second round loss to Washington in 2006, a first round loss to Virginia Tech in 2007, the worst season in the history of the program in 2008, a first round loss to Western Kentucky in 2009 and a trip to the NIT in 2010. That stretch leaves a lot to be desired (understatement!). Suddenly, we’re looking at a mediocre-at-best body of work with one very special group of players thrown in. To view it as anything else is not intellectually honest.
Late last month, A Lion Eye, a blog that sometimes creepily seems as if it is transcribing my inner monologue, drew a line from an ugly win at Indiana in 2004 to an ugly loss there in 2011 as the beginning and end of the Weber Era. Everything there is pretty accurate, I just prefer the symmetry of ugly loss to ugly loss.