College football is mercifully nearing its end. Remember the beginning of the season? All the optimism? That seems so far away. But basketball is here, the Illini are playing in Maui, and all of those little indicators of change you hoped to see on the football field but never did? They are on the basketball court. Buckle up, friends, we’re on the way back.
I know, it seems like a bold claim to make so early. But the green shoots are already visible. Whereas football left us with staff infighting and Tim Beckmemes (courtesy of the excellent new Illini blog The Champaign Room), basketball is all about feeling good and having fun again. To wit:
As he walked to the huddle with his team leading 44-25, Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams raised his arms in a Y-shape above his head, flashed a toothy smile and nodded his head in approval at his approaching teammates.
These were the moments had envisioned when he committed to Illinois four years ago. After an emotionally frustrating freshman season in which his team missed the NCAA Tournament and saw its coach fired, Abrams was going to enjoy this one.
“I mean, it’s fun. It’s a fun game,” said Abrams, who had 15 points and four assists in the Illini’s 89-64 rout of St. Francis (N.Y.) on Monday. “I mean that’s what it’s for. We’re supposed to come out, compete and have fun. I think it’s a different level of having fun this year. …You just got to enjoy it one step at a time.”
When was the last time you had fun watching an Illinois basketball game? When was the last time you felt the players were having fun? Last year’s outlier Gonzaga game? The UNLV tournament win? It’s tough to pin down. Tyler Griffey certainly didn’t know for sure:
“It’s been a while,” Griffey said after being asked how long it’s been since he’s had this much fun playing the game. “I’m enjoying it, enjoying the ride, enjoying my last year and just taking it one step at a time. I feel so much better. It feels good to be out there.”
It’s alarming how novel all this is. The widespread feeling of “Hey, this basketball thing? This can be FUN YOU GUYS” tells you just how not fun the last few years must have been. Obviously, it’s hard to have a good time when you haven’t finished above .500 in Big Ten play since 2010. But it was so much more than the losing. It was the slogfests that were lucky to reach the low 50s; it was the mortal fear of both the fast break and the free throw line; it was a team so paralyzed from trying to avoid doing something bad that the possibility of something good was almost always taken off the table. Even when we won, it was usually an affront to basketball.
All gone. Has it only been two games against creampuffs? Yeah, but they were summarily stomped like creampuffs should be. The improvement from the exhibitions to game one to game two has been noticeable, almost starkly so. On balance, it’s not a lot, really, but it’s a lot more than what we were seeing last year. More than anything, everybody I’ve spoken to that has watched the games feels like Tyler and Tracy do – like a weight has been lifted off of our collective shoulders and Illini basketball can go back to being a source of fun in our lives instead of a cross to bear. We are already wearing the albatross that is football – we can’t do both..
Second to the return of fun, what’s also been highly encouraging is the recruiting success – before he had even coached a game, Groce had pulled together what ended up being the RSCI-ranked 17th best class in the country. In seven months. On spec. For Illini fans remembering a run to the national title that ultimately made very little recruiting hay, it was something to see. A full 2013 class of five, hitting every position (PG- Jaylon Tate, SG- Kendrick Nunn, SF- Malcolm Hill, PF- Austin Colbert, C- Maverick Morgan), somehow getting both quantity and quality. And even more importantly is what’s beneath the surface – a connection to the Meanstreets AAU program and a reestablishment of the Illinois-Simeon pipeline (Nunn and Tate). Going out east and pulling an eleventh-hour bank heist of a Jersey kid that Villanova thought was theirs (Colbert). There’s a lot to like here, and all of these guys will be needed as soon as next year. I think finishing as runner-up to recruits like Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes is taking a little bit of the sparkle off this class for some – that would be a mistake. ALionEye put it succinctly:
One more thing. On paper, this recruiting class is better than Bill Self’s first class at Illinois. And it’s better than Bruce Weber’s first class at Illinois. And Bruce Weber’s second class at Illinois. And Bruce Weber’s third class at Illinois. And Bruce Weber’s fourth class at Illinois. And Bruce Weber’s fifth class at Illinois.
[Groce drops mic, exits]. Will there be some bumps in the road this season? Certainly, and they’re probably going to start as soon as later tonight against Hawaii. The Big Ten is the strongest it has been since the late ’80s. It’s going to be brutal and a tournament berth is still a bit of a lofty goal at this point. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve already seen more reasons to be excited in two basketball games than in ten football games. We’re on the way back.