Illini Nation is losing sleep these days: It’s disturbing enough to be 2-7 in the Big Ten and facing No. 1 Indiana. But, in perusing the crystal ball, how long will it take for John Groce’s basketball forces to return to contention?
The faithful carries an assumption that, at a point not too distant, it will happen. But with Indiana in the forefront tonight, don’t base calculations on what the Hoosiers have done. The Illini comeback could resemble, for example, Michigan, which bounced around for most of a decade after the Fab Five sanctions. Or Iowa, still striving to right its ship after the Pierre Pierce episode contributed to Steve Alford’s departure in 2007.
Indiana is different. Basketball consumes the populace. If they’re bad at football, it doesn’t discourage the Hoosiers.
For golfers, Augusta becomes links heaven during the week of the Masters. The Kentucky Derby draws weekend focus on Churchill Downs. Both are brief concentrations. The fixation on jump shooters in Hoosierland extends from New Year’s Day through December.
The power of Indiana hoops is best demonstrated by the way the Hoosiers have raided Illinois for some of their greatest prospects, most notably Quinn Buckner and Isiah Thomas and ranging all the way up to Champaign’s Verdell Jones III.
It doesn’t work the other way.
For the Illini, an invisible wall exists east of Danville. Indiana preps resist UI overtures as though this is the land of the Taliban. Since 1970, when Mike Price was a starter and Bob Windmiller a reserve, the UI has handed one scholarship to a Hoosier, Noblesville’s Scott Haffner, and he lasted one season in 1985.
Coach Bruce Weber got close to drawing a signature from Eric Gordon, but the Indianapolis star decommitted when Kelvin Sampson arrived and in-state pressure mounted. More recently, Illini coach John Groce challenged for Mishawaka guard Demetrius Jackson, but he ultimately favored nearby Notre Dame. This is basically a 43-year shutout, even for Illini coaches with an Indiana background.
Only the best will do
There are myriad examples of how Hoosier passions impact their pastime:
— Mike Davis replaced the controversial Bob Knight, who captured three of Indiana’s five NCAA crowns. In 2002, Davis led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title game, a notable accomplishment, but the folks still complained. Davis wasn’t Knight, and he was replaced by Sampson after a 19-12 season in 2006. Hoosier leaders overlooked Sampson’s NCAA sanctions for 550 impermissible telephone calls at Oklahoma ... and he soon lost his Indiana job for similar infractions. Indiana faced devastating player defections for reasons that included grades and drugs.
— There was attendance falloff in the 1-17 Big Ten campaign of 2009. But the season-ending crowd was listed at 15,006 when a lineup featuring Jones, Kyle Taber and Tom Pritchard fell to Michigan State. A year later, freshman Jordan Hulls scored 24 points as the Hoosiers snapped an 11-game losing streak, 88-80, over Northwestern before 17,277.
Bad teams, big crowds. Earlier this season, overcrowding caused several thousand fans to be turned away from the Hoosiers’ preseason tuneup.
— Last year Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Michigan’s Trey Burke shared Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Both declined major NBA bucks to turn Indiana and Michigan into 2013 title contenders. The 7-foot Zeller was voted preseason National Player of the Year, and Burke is deemed the national leader at this juncture.
— The face of college basketball changed when 49 underclassmen, most of them below Zeller and Burke in talent, turned pro. Among them was Illini sophomore Meyers Leonard — he had $2 million reasons, this year alone — even though he wasn’t named among the league’s top 15 players by either the coaches or the media last March.
Leonard is still on the come, missing 11 Portland games in January due to an ankle sprain. In his 37 games (not counting late Wednesday), he is averaging 15.1 minutes, 4.3 points and 3.2 rebounds, and he has three points in the last five games. As when he was drafted, production must be separated from potential.
How low can they go?
In this extended downturn, the Illini’s best athletes and some of their best coaches are jumping ship prematurely. The question has become: “When has Illinois sunk so low in both major sports at the same time?”
For the record, Illinois has lost 14 straight Big Ten games in football with no end in sight, and it has dropped 19 of 23 against conference opponents in basketball.
And we’re already starting to wonder: Will Groce’s cagers be better a year from now?
Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin comprise half of Groce’s customary eight-man rotation. Is it reasonable to assume that Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and five incoming recruits can match the production of the departing quartet next season? And will anyone make Oladipo-level improvement — Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is shooting 64.4 percent from the field — from the foursome of Illini returnees Joseph Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Myke Henry?
There is reason for hope.
Freshmen excel much more rapidly than a generation ago. As we’ll see tonight, rookie Yogi Ferrell gives the new Hurryin’ Hoosiers a blistering 1-2 punch at point guard alongside Hulls. Three of Michigan’s top six scorers are freshmen. Iowa is leaning heavily on three newcomers, and Michigan State has a budding star in Gary Harris. At Purdue, big A.J. Hammons is making rapid strides with 64 points and 30 rebounds in his last three games.
With that as background, much is expected of Belleville forward Malcolm Hill, who has outplayed Simeon’s Jabari Parker thus far and deserves strong consideration for Illinois Player of the Year. The Illini signee is scoring at a phenomenal pace, racking 37 points in East’s 90-85 loss to East St. Louis on Friday.
But freshmen develop at different rates. Michigan’s newcomers are outperforming their expectations and benefit from a sophomore (Burke) who is the best setup man in the country. The importance of a point guard can’t be overstated. That’s why Indiana coach Tom Crean elected to go with two at a time, even if they don’t average 6 feet. And that’s why Groce is searching heaven and earth for a special playmaker who makes everyone else better.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.