By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Last season was a pleasant surprise. Next season looks to be promising. But what exactly would you call this season for the University of Illinois basketball team?
A mystery, I suppose.
Although, by March, I still suspect that the Illini’s 2013-14 campaign could turn out to be a solid whodunit, again filled with some unexpected twists. That’s even though Illinois’ immediate fortunes took a turn for the worse on Tuesday when the NCAA announced that it had ruled Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks ineligible for this season.
The 5-foot-9 Whitney Young product, who spent three years as a starter at guard for the Beavers, transferred to Illinois to be closer to his ailing grandmother in Chicago and had applied for a hardship waiver to be eligible immediately.
“I thought his case was very, very valid,” Illini coach John Groce said on Wednesday. “We were really disappointed.”
Fans should be too, considering how Starks, who averaged 10.4 points per game and shot 40 percent on three-pointers as a junior last season, was expected to be an immediate key backcourt contributor for Illinois. To be sure, his loss is a blow for the team, but I don’t think it sinks the Illini’s season.
Last year in Groce’s first season at the Illini helm, I set the bar for success at qualifying for the NCAA Tournament – something that Illinois did, even winning a tourney game, to boot. Heading into Groce’s second season, as he continues to get his operation and roster the way he wants them, I set the bar at the same level.
If Illinois makes the Big Dance, I’ll consider the 2013-14 campaign to have been a positive one. Anything more will be gravy, anything less will be something of a letdown, although hardly a devastating blow considering the talent that the Illini are replacing this season and the talent Groce has in the pipeline for the future.
But even though Illinois must replace seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin from last season’s squad and also watched reserves Mike Shaw, Myke Henry, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde leave the program during the offseason, losing all those players doesn’t mean Illinois is green.
Rather, as Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate pointed out on this week, this Illini team is actually a very mature one, especially in this age of NBA early-entry.
“Four graduates and four reserves are gone, but this isn’t a young team,” Tate wrote. “Consider the likely starters. Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey are fifth-year students, Rayvonte Rice is in his fourth year, and Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams are juniors.”
That’s 20 combined seasons of experience, just two seasons less than the 22 combined seasons that the starters on one of my favorite Illini teams boasted back when it made a startling run to success. During my senior year of college at Illinois, the 1997-98 Illini featured a starting five of three fourth-year seniors in Matt Heldman, Kevin Turner and Jerry Gee and two fifth-year seniors in Brian Johnson and Jerry Hester.
Not much was expected from that bunch heading into the season – they were picked seventh in the Big Ten, about the same as the projections for the 2013-14 Illini – but the veteran squad ended up racking up a thrilling 13-3 conference record that left them sharing the league title with Michigan State.
Now, I don’t expect any Big Ten championships from this year’s Illinois team, but I’m also not assuming a disappointing season, either. It’s wise to never discount experience and even though these Illini are something of a mystery, they could still end up authoring a thriller.
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.