Is it basketball season yet?

“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.

Illinois Class of 2015: For comparison’s sake

Comparing and contrasting to the more familiar or to the past is a recruiting epidemic. You can tell how fruitless the exercise is when the recruit himself is asked, “People have compared your game to blah blah blah, would you say that’s accurate?” and the answer is almost always, “I’m not trying to be anybody else, I just play my game.” So why do recruiting comparisons fuel such attention, and why is it just so much fun to argue about them?

How we remember the 2015 recruits will depend more on their success together and what they become years from now, so whatever shell we put on them today they’re bound to grow out of. Is Michael Finke more Robbie Hummel, Bill Cole, or now that he’s 6-10 and 235 pounds, is he more Jack Ingram? Is Leron Black going to be the new Roger Powell Jr., and is that 6-7 listing with shoes or without?

Yes, I maintain the comparisons are fruitless, but because it’s just so much fun to be redundantly useless in recruiting speculation, I’m breaking out every incoming kid from 2015 into three categories for you Illini fans: Which Illini player of the recent past do they most closely resemble, which Big Ten player do they remind me of, and which NBA player most closely resembles the recruit’s finished product, or the ceiling? Continue Reading →

Illini roster ready for unveiling

At this point in the fall, any self-respecting Illini fan has been dripping with hoops anticipation for weeks. Most (if not all) have Google-searched and Illinois-Loyalty lurked their way into dozens of ideas about this team and this season. But what’s interesting is no matter the level of dedication and research, it’s tough to find two people in agreement about where Illinois stands in relation to the Big Ten Conference, and what it’s capable of come March. So far all we have to go on is the Illini All-In open practice, but tonight is opening night (of sorts), and player-by-player we’ll have a lot more to support any outrageous educated guess.

For the first time of the Groce era, Illinois possesses a team with the depth and skill to put his vision to work. Don’t jump the gun; this isn’t the premium model of his (and our) dreams, but it’s certainly much more complete than his first two years. If you throw away last year’s hodgepodge of misfit toys (no offense to the roster, but it was scorched earth after Weber’s likeness was removed with fire), this team compares favorably to year one of the Groce era.

D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul were very good players in 2012-2013, but still both shot under 40% from the field and 34.8% and 33.3% respectively from 3. Very modest prognostication suggests this year’s roster could have four or five players exceed the shooting numbers of the two best from that year. Year one finished a Shane Larkin shot away from a Sweet 16, and if you’re telling me on paper this team is deeper and more skilled, then what is this year’s ceiling? Well, I don’t know yet. But I know how I’ll figure that out.

Tonight Illinois opens with its first and only exhibition against Quincy. Although the Illini will outclass its opponent at every position, it’s still possible to start extracting details about where this team will land. Here is what I’ll be watching for from each player. (For the purpose of this exercise, and to avoid sounding like I’m degrading any walk-ons, I’m going to stick with guys that could get minutes in February. And to avoid tipping my hat before ever seeing a live game, I’ll work up in seniority order.) Continue Reading →

Beckman’s immediate future should hinge on homecoming effort

Mike Thomas is doing his best Bond Villain impression. Instead of cutting ties with Tim Beckman quickly like the yank of a Band-Aid, he’s got Beckman tied to a conveyor belt heading towards a buzz saw. I can’t imagine a scenario where Beckman wiggles off and escapes the unemployment line, but I can understand Thomas evaluating whether firing a coach mid-season is in the best interests of Illinois Football moving forward. This week in particular, homecoming against Minnesota (6-1), should provide Thomas with all the evidence he needs for either decision. Continue Reading →