By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) By the end of that ugly Big Ten basketball tilt in Iowa City on Tuesday night, the only thing more plentiful among the Illini than missed shots was their disappointment.
John Groce was disappointed.
“I’m disappointed in the way we came out both halves, especially with older guys out there. Very disappointed,” the Illinois basketball coach said after his team shot a season-low 28.6 percent and lost 63-55.
Brandon Paul was disappointed.
“It’s really disappointing, but we can’t dwell on it. We can’t get it back. We can’t go back in time. Obviously, we’ve got to figure out what it is we need to do better,” the Illini’s leading scorer added.
And most Illini fans were surely disappointed, too.
But disappointment is far from the dominant feeling that I’m experiencing right now, even if few things can dampen an Illinoisan’s mood more quickly than losing to the Hawkeyes. That’s because, from my vantage point, there are even fewer things that can truly dampen this Illini season – even if Illinois ends up leaving March Madness like a lamb.
Last fall, based on the epic Big Ten collapse in 2011-12 that led to Bruce Weber’s ouster, l said that I’d consider this Illinois basketball season a success if the team simply made the NCAA Tournament in Groce’s first year. I still feel that way, and with multiple bracketology projections showing Illinois safely in the Big Dance’s 68-team field even without another win this month, this season is already a success in my book.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see the Illini have a great deal more success during it. I certainly do – and they certainly could.
But, considering the personal bar that I set for Illinois to meet at the start of the season, I can’t help but also feel as if the team is now playing with house money. And I’d encourage fans to simply enjoy the rest of this year’s topsy-turvy ride, rather than over stress about it down the stretch.
On that topic, back in November before the Illini hosted Colgate in their season opener, I issued “My Plea To Illini Fans During Basketball Season” in which I wrote that I expected to see plenty of different things from Groce’s inaugural team when compared to Weber’s, but added how “an antsy Illini fandom needs to not expect to see too much from Groce & Co. After all, it’s too soon.”
With Illinois fans coming off an atrocious football season in Tim Beckman’s first year, I wrote how “for all we know, basketball could be in for a similarly bumpy record this season” and that the team “faces an extraordinarily stiff challenge in an extraordinarily loaded Big Ten.”
Before he’d even coached a game, I liked the looks of Groce who seemed much more polished and cerebral than Beckman, and I wrote how I thought that the Illini had the potential to surprise with him at the helm this season, but, “fact is, the Illini also have the potential to struggle.”
As it turned out, we’ve seen the Illini both surprise and struggle. But we’ve seen Groce pull this team back from the depths of a 2-7 Big Ten start with a chance for a 9-9 conference mark. We’ve also seen a team that has appeared prepared (if not always sharp) most every night, has shown improvement throughout the year, and has bought into the new coach’s scheme – and the new coach himself.
Those are pretty much the opposite of what Illinois football showed under Beckman last fall. And while hoops and pigskin are by no means apples to apples, I like them apples shown by Groce’s team much more.
In November, I ended my plea by asking for Illini fans to not expect too much from hoops, and for the Illini players to show us something. What the team has ended up showing us is an apparent NCAA Tournament bid.
That alone is an incredibly encouraging way to kick off Groce’s career at Illinois. And my plea for Illinois fans this month is to remember that, no matter how things turn out from here.
But, hey, that’s not to say the Illini can’t also enter the madness of March like a lion. Everyone in orange and blue would love to roar about that, 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.