By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Buckle up, Illini fans. And, well, Bucky up, too.
Because, remember, this isn’t going to be a smooth ride.
Did you think that it was?
“You have to have amnesia,” Illinois basketball coach John Groce said late Wednesday night after his squad was humbled defensively, offensively and in pretty much every other way you can think of during a 95-70 train wreck at the Kohl Center against unbeaten Wisconsin.
“But, you have to learn from it,” continued Groce, who saw his Illini fall to 13-3 overall, 2-1 in the Big Ten. “It’s very important to learn from it. You can’t have a hangover; that’s a recipe for disaster. We’ve got confident guys, and they’ll respond. We’ve got great kids.”
And I still think that Illinois has a very good chance to earn an NCAA Tournament berth come March, which is really the goal for this season. Beating the No. 4 team in the nation on its home court isn’t.
Although, yes, it would be nice if Illinois didn’t have to lose so badly to the Badgers, who have gone from a woeful program that once didn’t even make an NCAA Tournament between 1947 and 1994 to a team that at 16-0 is now looking like it could win the whole shebang this year.
On Wednesday, when Illinois suffered through a 20-0 Wisconsin run during which the orange and blue missed 13 straight shot attempts, a friend of mine sent me a text commenting how the Illini were looking very “pieced” together.
And that’s probably because, really, they are. In his second season at the Illinois helm, Groce is still trying to get things settled with his roster in Champaign as he shuttles in transfers and seeks to establish solid footing in high school recruiting circles.
With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that the Illini would suffer an ugly loss in the rugged Big Ten. It’s likely that the team will suffer another one – or two – as the conference season wears on.
Road trips to No. 3 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State say hello.
But after a successful 11-2 nonconference campaign, what Illinois really needs to set its sights on is winning the games that it should in the Big Ten in order to secure a ticket to the Dance. They already took care of business at home with a 2-0 start with crucial victories at State Farm Center over Indiana and Penn State. Next up: A Sunday night contest at Welsh-Ryan Arena against struggling Northwestern.
For Illinois, it’s a must-win. Same goes for next Wednesday’s showdown in Champaign against middle-of-the-pack Purdue. If Illinois is to ultimately finish with a 9-9 conference record and reach 20 wins overall (numbers that would likely earn Illinois a tourney berth), it likely needs a 4-1 start in the Big Ten before jumping into a brutal five-game stretch that features Michigan State (at home), Ohio State (road), Indiana (road), Iowa (home) and Wisconsin (home).
Prior to last night’s game, BTN mentioned how it’s now been nine years since Illinois’ magical 37-2 season of 2005. That was a time when fans could truly expect the Illini to win every game, home or away, and be angry if they didn’t. Although nearly a decade has passed, I believe many Illini fans are still conditioned to think in the same way – expect glory and be frustrated when it doesn’t happen. It’s great to hold the program to high standards, but also wise to look at the current product for what it is.
These 2014 Illini are obviously a long way from the 2005 bunch. Groce is working to get the program back on championship-level footing, but first he needs to get it back into the NCAA Tournament.
And last night’s loss doesn’t hurt that realistic goal – just as long as the blowout doesn’t carry over into Sunday’s game in Evanston. Disappointed Illini fans can take comfort in remembering that.
The team can focus on the amnesia.