By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When it comes to weekends, Illini Nation’s was about on par with Bernie’s.
On Friday morning, basketball commitment Quentin Snider turned tails for Louisville. On Friday afternoon, Chicago Curie’s Cliff Alexander did everything but say he was “taking his talents to Lawrence” during his nationally televised dis of his home state school. And by Saturday afternoon, fans of defense were again grossly offended as the Illini football team was stomped by Ohio State for its 20th consecutive Big Ten loss.
By the time tornadoes had raked large swaths of Central Illinois on Sunday afternoon, the entire state needed a weekend from its weekend.
And probably another weekend on top of that.
But come Sunday night, John Groce’s current basketball players showed that all is not lost in Champaign. By impressively routing I-74 rival Bradley 86-51 at the State Farm Center, the Illini quieted a small group of BU students in attendance who had been chanting “We want Cliff” and “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk.” The victory featured 19 assists on 28 baskets and a breakout shooting game from transfer Jon Ekey (5-of-7 on three-pointers for 19 points) allowing Illinois fans to head into Monday morning with their chins still bruised, but up.
While Cliff Alexander’s less than classy bait-and-switch may have turned Illinois basketball into a punch line for Deadspin and Chicago newspaper headline writers, John Groce quickly showed that his program will punch right back.
And as the Illini dive fully into the 2013-14 basketball season – and beyond – fans should take comfort in knowing that thanks to its fiery second-year coach the program is in good hands, no matter which school’s cap ended up being held in Alexander’s last.
“I understand there was an article written about Illinois basketball being put in its place,” a steely-eyed Groce said during a press conference on Saturday, referring to a headline in the Chicago Sun-Times. “I’m going to tell you what place it’s in. It’s in a great place. That’s what place it’s in.
“In the last 20 months, from the time we started, March 29, 2012 until now, we have made strides and improvements in a lot of areas. (Assistant coaches and players) have initiated and ignited a switch that has given us the opportunity to build something special. … So if anyone wants to know what place Illinois college hoops is in right now, it’s in a great place. Not a good place, a great place.”
And it really is.
As I wrote on Friday before anyone knew if Snider would defect and that Alexander would reject, “Even if the recruiting sky does fall in today, it’s hardly the end of the world for the Illinois program. Remember, this is still the beginning – either way. And what failing to snare players at the end would mean is that John Groce still needs to get his recruiting machine up to the level of Bill Self’s at KU and/or Rick Pitino’s Louisville.”
Even without Snider and Alexander, Illinois still brings in an excellent recruiting class for 2014-15 when you add transfers Darius Paul, Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks into the mix with high school recruits Leron Black and Michael Finke.
The program has a trio of talented point guards in Tracy Abrams, Starks and Jaylon Tate in the fold and a plethora of players to fill the power forward slot with Black, Finke and current Illini Austin Colbert and Malcolm Hill. The aftermath of this weekend is nothing like when Eric Gordon dumped Illinois in favor of Indiana and left Bruce Weber’s program without anyone to fill Gordon’s expected role, and Groce already has a top commitment in the 2015 class from Simeon’s D.J. Williams. The sky isn’t falling, now or next year.
By getting burned in the recruiting wars, Groce may have forged an even greater resolve for his position at Illinois. And as strange as it sounds, the negative events on Friday may have actually given Illini fans – and players – something to rally around, which could end up being a positive in the end.
And something that puts Illinois in its place: A good one.
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.