By Dave Wischnowsky–
(CBS) It’s not just a new season for the Fighting Illini basketball team.
It’s a different world.
A year ago, with Illinois fans down in the dumps over football and basketball programs that had devolved into twin disasters, John Groce managed to flip the Illini’s fortunes.
In his debut campaign, he knocked off the nation’s No. 1 team and guided the Illini to Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament. Not bad for the perceived No. 3 choice for the job. Today, Groce has Illinois basketball on such a recruiting roll that he just might end up snaring the program’s biggest fish in a generation with Chicago Curie’s Cliff Alexander.
But in between last season’s success and Alexander’s anticipated college decision one week from today, Groce & the Illini have a basketball opener to play at 7 p.m. tonight against Alabama State at the State Farm Center. And much like last year, they’re again facing a season filled with big question marks, even if they are different ones this time around.
Groce has a roster with 10 new faces, although three of them are sitting out this season as ineligible transfers.
He has no clear-cut team leader, but does have a number of experienced candidates in three-year starters Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams, fourth-year Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and fifth-year veterans Joe Bertrand and Jon Ekey.
And he has a schedule that sets up for a hot start, but then offers plenty of potential for pitfalls with nonconference road trips to Las Vegas, Atlanta (twice), Portland, St. Louis and Chicago, along with a full slate of stiff Big Ten competition.
And, lastly, whether or not he asked for it, Groce also has the responsibility to again help lift Illini Nation out of the doldrums that is Tim Beckman’s football program, which is mired in a 17-game Big Ten losing streak and has darkened Champaign far more than this month’s time change.
One year ago, on the day before Illinois began its 2012-13 season, I wrote a column entitled, “My Plea To Illini Fans During Basketball Season.” In it, I recounted how I had written after Groce’s impressive introductory press conference in Champaign that, “There’s a great chance that Illini Nation will also come to love John Groce. He’s a good hire. With the right staff, he could be a very good one. In time, the man tied with Penn State’s Patrick Chambers as the youngest coach in the Big Ten (age: 40) could even become a great one. Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
And with that praise, I then asked Illini fans to not expect too much too soon from the hoops program, and to not take their football frustrations out on basketball if Groce’s team struggles.
As it turned out, fans ultimately got a pleasant surprise from Illinois. I think they could end getting the same again this season. But it’s still too soon to expect too much. Because, while the future of Groce’s program is undoubtedly bright, the present is considerably murkier. And we’ll just have to wade through it to see where the Illini are going.
It also might require you to hold your breath every now and then. So be sure to take a big one, and exhale before the 2013-14 Illini get this thing started.