By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Keep your wits about yourself, Illini Nation.
Wrangle those expectations. Temper your demands. And breathe.
If Illinois does struggle against 8th-ranked Ohio State today at Assembly Hall (1:15 p.m., BTN) in the ways that it did against unranked Purdue on Wednesday, it indeed is time to worry about team’s prospects in the Big Ten this season.
But it isn’t time to panic about the Illini program.
After all, John Groce is just getting started. And, unlike his first-year football counterpart Tim Beckman, he’s shown us enough in his team’s surprising 13-2 getaway to feel optimistic about the future of the program.
Back on Nov. 8, before the hoops season opener, I published a column about “My Plea to Illini Fans During Basketball Training Season” in which I wrote that, “an antsy Illini fandom needs to not expect to see too much from Groce & Co. After all, it’s too soon.”
With Illinois fans reeling from a disastrous football season and desperate for any kind of success, I cautioned that, “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 and faces an extraordinarily stiff challenge in an extraordinarily loaded Big Ten.”
Two months after writing those words, Illinois’ start – which has included a Maui Classic title, a road win at Gonzaga and a Top 10 ranking – has been smoother than anyone could have anticipated. But, as we’ve learned, the team lacks reliable rebounders even more than it lacks trusty ball-handlers. And with five other conference foes also ranked in the Top 20, Illinois does indeed face a daunting challenge in a stacked Big Ten.
In November, I added that “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 if the team can manage to minimize those pesky turnovers. But, fact is, the Illini also have the potential to struggle.”
And, they do. We’ve seen that the past three games while they were manhandled on the boards against Missouri, Auburn and Purdue.
Wednesday night’s tilt at Purdue reminded me of the opportunity that the 2008-09 Illini had in West Lafayette when they stunned the 9th-ranked Boilermakers 71-67 in overtime to steal the Big Ten opener. That victory helped launch an Illinois team led by Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham to a surprising second-place finish in the conference and a 24-10 record overall.
The ’08-’09 Illini were the last Illinois squad to exceed expectations for a full season. This year’s team has done so up to this point, and a precious road victory at Mackey Arena would have been a great help to Illinois’ hopes in the treacherous Big Ten this season. That’s doubly so considering the next three games are No. 8 Ohio State, No. 9 Minnesota and at Wisconsin.
That the Illini lost at Purdue (they usually do) wasn’t a disaster. But, it could be a harbinger of conference difficulties to come for this group of players who also started last year 10-0 before finishing a disappointing 17-15. We’ll learn more today when we see if Illinois can make winning on the Big Ten road as difficult for the Buckeyes as Purdue made it for the Illini.
My hope is for Illinois this year is to scrap out a 9-9 Big Ten record, which should be good enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. If that happens, this season should be considered a success.
But as I also wrote in November when comparing Illini hoops to Illini football, “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.”
So far, the team has shown those things and has bought in to Groce. We’ll see over the following weeks, if the Illini keep on buying.
But even if they struggle, I wouldn’t sell on Illinois’ future.
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.