By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The days are dark in Champaign right now.
And it has nothing to do with the time change.
At the University of Illinois, the football program is caught up in a tailspin so severe that an ETA on its actual crash landing remains unavailable. As a result, the first-year football coach has hardly instilled confidence – let alone enthusiasm – among a frazzled fan base. And in turn, the second-year athletic director has become the target for many a critical arrow, including those from yours truly.
With despair sweeping across the Illinois prairies – and creeping through the streets of Chicago – a restless Illini Nation is in dire need of a savior to light the way back to brighter days.
Enter John Groce.
On Friday night, the Illini’s new hope, er… new basketball coach’s Fighting Illini team tips off the 2012-13 season when it hosts Colgate at Assembly Hall. Here’s to hoping that we see a brand of basketball that’s minty fresh.
But whatever the flavor, I expect that we will see plenty of different things from Groce’s inaugural team when compared to departed coach Bruce Weber’s. That includes a faster pace, perhaps some zone defense and hopefully higher scoring totals. But an antsy Illini fandom needs to not expect to see too much from Groce & Co.
After all, it’s too soon.
Now, some might argue that the same assessment could be applied to Tim Beckman’s floundering Illini football program. Heading into Saturday’s home game against Minnesota, Illinois is 2-7 overall and on a six-game losing streak during the coach’s rookie campaign.
However, contrary to some beliefs, it’s not Beckman’s 2-7 record that’s so troubling. Rather, it’s the fact that Illinois hasn’t appeared well prepared for games, hasn’t been competitive on any level and has shown absolutely no signs of improvement throughout the course of the season. In fact, the Illini continue to get worse.
If Illinois was 3-6 right now – there’s never any excuse for losing to Indiana at home – but had at least been competitive and the players had shown signs that they’re getting better, I wouldn’t be so concerned about Beckman and his assistants. I’d be perfectly willing to have patience and give him time, even with the sub-par record.
None of that has been the case, however.
As a result, I’m concerned about football. Deeply.
Now, for all we know, basketball could be in for a similarly bumpy record this season. The team does have considerable experience and some solid individual talents returning, but lacks reliable ball-handlers (Brandon Paul isn’t a point guard) and faces a extraordinarily stiff challenge in an extraordinarily loaded Big Ten.
I like Groce. He seems more polished and cerebral than Beckman and has shown a knack to quickly get close with top recruits, if not yet bring them home. I do think that the Illini have the potential to surprise with Groce at the helm this season, especially if sophomore center Nnana Egwu can take a major step forward and the team can manage to minimize those pesky turnovers. But, fact is, the Illini also have the potential to struggle.
Nevertheless, Illinois’ record this season isn’t as important as seeing the team show that it’s prepared every night out, show steady improvement through March and show that it’s buying into the new coach’s scheme – and into the new coach himself.
You know, pretty much show us everything that the football team hasn’t.
So here on Basketball Eve, my dual pleas are for Illini fans to not expect too much, and for the Illini players to show us something.
If we see that, we should all be pretty pleased.
But no one would mind getting a little sugar on top, too.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.