By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) As we enter February, the days are supposed to be getting longer. But for the Illinois basketball team, they’re still looking awfully dark.
Caught up in a six-game tailspin, the Illini not only are showing a shooting percentage that makes the polar vortex look downright toasty, but they also can hear the clock ticking loudly on their postseason hopes as No. 15 Iowa prepares to roll into State Farm Center on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (BTN).
And if the clock does indeed strike midnight for Illinois (13-8 overall, 2-6 Big Ten) at some point this month, it won’t be just the hoops squad that will end up turning into a pumpkin.
The entire Illini athletic season will too.
That’s because Illinois is in serious jeopardy of seeing both its football and basketball teams fail to qualify for the postseason of any sort (NIT included) during the same academic year for the first time in 15 years and only the second time in the past 35.
Remind me again why athletic director Mike Thomas was awarded with a contract extension and raise at this juncture?
With 10 games left in the regular season, Illini hoops probably needs to go 7-3 – perhaps 6-4 if one of the wins was against Michigan State or Michigan – and win a game in the Big Ten Tournament to be picked on Selection Sunday. The chances of that happening aren’t good, and with the way the team has been playing of late, making even the NIT could be a long shot. And, of course, we already know that the Illini football team went 4-8 this past season, falling several slices short of qualifying for even the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
On the bright side, think of all the money Illini fans are saving on postseason tickets.
Over the past few decades, both the Illini football and basketball seasons have had their ups and downs, but it’s been rare for each program to be so down at the same time.
In fact, the last time that Illinois fans suffered so badly from autumn through spring was 1998-99, when Ron Turner’s second football squad went 3-8 and was followed by a 14-18 campaign from Lon Kruger’s youthful bunch of Illini that finished the regular season dead last in conference. However, that hoops team did make a miraculous run to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament, which at least closed the ’98-’99 academic year on a high note.
Traditionally, Illinois basketball has enjoyed much more consistent success than Illinois football. But in the other recent years when the hoops squad failed to make the postseason (2011-12, 2007-08, 1991-92 and 1990-91), the guys on the gridiron have picked up the slack by reaching the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (2011), Rose Bowl (2007), John Hancock Bowl (1991) and Hall of Fame Bowl (1990) to help buoy spirits.
Barring a late run to the postseason by Illini basketball, this sports season could be the darkest for Illini Nation since 1978-79, when Gary Moeller’s football team went 1-8-2 and Lou Henson’s Illini finished 7-11 in the Big Ten. However, while that hoops squad didn’t even play in the NIT, it did still finish with a respectable 19-11 overall record.
To even get that many wins, these Illini have their work cut out for them.
But they do get another chance to brighten the season Saturday.