Tate: A trying time

Tate: A trying time

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." — Thomas Paine

As it was in 1776, when long odds faced the revolution, it returns locally in the less serious matter of Illini athletics. It's not easy to "keep the faith" amid the growing weight of setbacks. UI football just finished its fifth winless Big Ten season in 21 years, that frustration exacerbated by the never-ending dispute over Chief Illiniwek and talk of an unwanted mascot.

And now comes a not unexpected development. Eight veterans are transferring — either unhappy or unwanted — and more may have similar intentions. These may be Lovie Smith's decisions or mutual decisions, or whatever. Problem is, football is a numbers game involving injuries. Being two-deep at all positions is the bare minimum.

Final game starters Tre Watson, Tito Odenigbo and Patrick Nelson, who along with Gabe Megginson have started 44 Illini games, led a group of eight veterans announcing transfers. The linebacking corps is especially hard hit.

Smith, bound by NCAA scholarship rules only through the fourth season, is clearing space for 20-plus recruits. This is a youth movement beyond anything we have witnessed here.

Uphill climb

OK, so winning at Illinois is hard.

We see it in women's basketball where the Illini dropped their last two games by 29 points to New Mexico and 47 points to Virginia Tech before playing today at Memphis, a wayward foe that has lost six straight by an average margin of 21 points.

We see it in volleyball where a resilient Illini team fought back in a fifth set to nip Hawaii, thus setting up an underdog bid at Washington in the regional late on Saturday night.

We saw it in soccer where Janet Rayfield's team failed to score in the last four matches of a 5-14 fall season.

And we saw it on Iowa's mat where the Hawkeyes' perennially strong wrestlers used bonus points in the last match to repel a courageous Illini effort, 18-17, on Friday night.

Signs of progress?

So losses come in multi-colored packages. Jim Heffernan's gang left Iowa City with their pride intact.

And the same could be said for Brad Underwood's athletes in Rosemont on Friday night. Some 10,000 fans reminded how special this series can be — a protected rivalry, they'll play twice each year in the future — as Illinois and Northwestern battled into overtime.

NU's 72-68 win turned on a few key plays at the end, in particular the UI's string of empty possessions. This was high-level entertainment even as Chris Collins' veteran Wildcats (four returning starters) search to rediscover last year's NCAA mojo, and the revamped Illini search for their lost identity.

If you check the stats, there is nothing to indicate Illinois should have won. The Illini failed again at the three-point line, missing 15 of 18. In-the-paint shortcomings are borne out by no blocks (NU's Dererk Pardon had four), a mere six offensive rebounds and Michael Finke's second straight sub-par game (no field goals).

As one of the national leaders with 23-plus personals, the Illini committed 23 more (NU had 28), and managed just eight assists against 19 turnovers.

All those are losing numbers.

Running afoul

Furthermore, there were ring-around-the-rosie UI moments when Collins shifted into a zone, and the ending found Te'Jon Lucas trying solo drives to compensate for non-penetrating Illini teammates. Somebody had to do something.

So how did they nearly pull it off? They played with a new fervor. Defensive teamwork was extraordinary, as NU point guard Bryant McIntosh can attest (six turnovers).

Did the officiating play a role? Yes, as always.

Another 51 fouls were whistled, spoiling the flow late in both halves. The rules require too many picky personals to be called. As at Wake Forest, there were inexplicable moments. And on Friday a handful of UI baskets were disallowed by marginal offensive fouls and rulings denying continuation.

We're told that over the course of the season, the calls will even out. If that's so, the Illini have some coming as they host Maryland at 7 o'clock tonight.

Loren Tate writes for the News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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Illini '73 wrote on December 03, 2017 at 7:12 am

Finke is useless inside on offense.  And he is not much better on defense.  If he is going to be of any use to the Illini it will be from outside shooting 3's.  I know we are short on size on the boards, but giving up his offensive production which he will only give outside is counter productive. 

Moonpie wrote on December 03, 2017 at 8:12 am

Good Lord--now Prehistoric Ancient Tate likens Illini sports to the American Revolution. But gotta love that Tate, a fact-free Trumpie, quotes one of the founders of liberalism. I won't assume that he actually knows that. I suspect that faulty old Edmund Burke is more his style.

And of ourse, he blames the latest loss on officiating. It's so unfair! Whine!

And where's the obligatory elbows to fans and mention of Red Grange?

Moonpie wrote on December 03, 2017 at 8:12 am

Of course--that's it: he quotes Paine to once again disguise a sucker punch at fans. To him, they're worse than sunshine patriots--traitors. Ah, iife inside the conservatie bubble.