“Is it basketball season yet?”
Five simple words uttered in a crowded bar – that’s how I found a fellow Illini fan huddled amongst the Buckeye masses. The day was September 27, 2014, and I was at a coworker’s surprise birthday party. Had I been told the host venue was an Ohio State bar, I might have contracted something horrible and “been sick” the entire night. Instead, there I was, stuck watching Ohio State’s throttling of Cincinnati while figuratively awaiting Ameer Abdullah’s swift justice. When it became apparent that Abdullah would run through the Illini defense opposed only by gravity and wind shear, I heard a familiar rally cry from behind me: “Is it basketball season yet?”.
“Ha, that’s what we say” I thought to myself. And only after deducing that no Ohio State fan in history has ever asked that question, I turned to find an Illini brother in arms.
After commiserating with my new Illini friend over expensive cheap beers we parted ways, but man I wish I would run into him again because it’s still football season, and it’s basketball season. It’s great!
For years it’s felt like the struggling Illini could only have one or the other – a good basketball team and a football team providing entertainment in late November. Why did Wisconsin and Ohio State have all the luck, when was it going to be our turn? Well, it still isn’t, not to the same degree, but this is pretty cool: Illinois basketball is undefeated and ranked No. 24 heading into tonight’s matchup with No. 15 Miami, and the football team defied the odds and fan expectations by rolling off consecutive victories over Penn State and Northwestern to secure bowl eligibility and Tim Beckman’s job. Cool.
We Have Football
If Tim Beckman comes to recruit in New York/New Jersey (which he really should), I will personally let him serve me a plate of crow. I called him dead in the water weeks ago because I didn’t think he was capable of steadying the ship amongst adversity. My biggest beef with Beckman has been his inability to spark enthusiasm and focus from his players. For a few years the Illini sideline has been a funeral procession, and it’s infuriated me.
When the fans and media started calling for Beckman to be fired, I was sure that the team would see a light at the end of the tunnel and go into the fetal position to see Becks go. Instead Beckman managed to rally the team, and the squad exploded out of the locker room accepting the vision that a bowl game was still in reach. The defense was flying around making plays and causing turnovers, and the offense, led by career backup Reilly O’Toole, was clutch against Penn State and actually good against Northwestern. And by golly, it worked! For a couple weeks Beckman had mostly right answers when asked about his job security, and he may have finally won the locker room over.
I agree that he’s directed himself into a fourth year, and we’ll see what he can do with his guys. I’m not ready to declare Beckman the long term solution, and from the looks of the extension neither is Mike Thomas, but in the meantime how can you not root for these kids and have fun with what they’ve been able to accomplish?
We Have Basketball
Even though Illini fans love to say “Is it basketball season yet?”, hoops really hasn’t been the light at the end of the tunnel since Dee Brown and James Augustine led the way. The team has had its ups and downs, but the scales are pretty heavily tilted towards the latter. Is this the year Illini fans have seen coming? Hoping and praying that in their lifetimes they’ll hold a ranking and not sweat out Selection Sunday? We’ve seen good starts before from the Illini, but this team feels different. Dating back to Brown and Augustine, even undefeated Novembers came with a caveat; we knew the team’s obvious flaws, and we painfully had to admit that football anguish would not receive a lasting respite, and we were headed towards another sub-.500 Big Ten record and chewed nails mid-March.
As of this morning, I’m confident Illinois isn’t banging with Kentucky and won’t challenge Wisconsin for the league title, but I think we’ve turned the corner and will be playing for seeding. There are weaknesses that prevent me from booking a flight in early April, but those are just weaknesses, not holes or glaring deficiencies.