Call the medics. Alert the National Guard. Illinois is sliding into Lake Michigan.
It’s not enough that the state is digging deep into bankruptcy, or that its largest city is a shooting gallery. And then there’s the Cubs, rebuilding for the 100th time. Even the Golden Globes punked the Land of Lincoln on Sunday by nearly overlooking the season’s best movie, “Lincoln.”
But these things matter little to basketball fans, who are again applying cold compresses to their foreheads over the play of the state’s college teams.
Yep, they’re drowning. One by one. To say they’re bad is to give them too much credit. Of 13 major schools, only Western Illinois is over .500 in its conference. WIU is 6-0 in the Summit. The other 12 are 10-36 collectively. That’s 10 wins out of 46, a success rate of less than 22 percent.
If there were hints that this was the year for Northwestern (sound familiar, Cub fans?), those hopes disintegrated with Drew Crawford’s season-ending injury. That puts Bill Carmody atop the firing line for Big Ten coaches as he brings his Wildcats (beaten 70-50 Sunday by Iowa) to the Assembly Hall on Thursday.
You might call this a “must win” for the Illini, barely hanging onto the 23rd slot in the AP’s Top 25 as the only member with four losses.
What’s going on? This is supposed to be a “basketball state.” We are, after all, only separated from Indiana by a nearby border. Teams to the north and south manage to find success. Former UI coaches Lon Kruger, Bruce Weber and Bill Self are collectively 38-6.
But in Illinois, failure has become too frequent for this to be considered an anomaly.
Turn for the worse
Since 2007, when SIU lost in the NCAA’s third round to Kansas (and Illinois blew a late 10-point lead vs. Virginia Tech), only Illinois has seen its name in the NCAA brackets. Illinois lost to Western Kentucky in 2009 and beat UNLV before falling to Kansas in 2011.
That’s it. In five straight years, teams from this state own one NCAA victory as they’ve barely scratched the surface of March Madness. Illinois made two brief appearances, and nobody else made any.
And this season is stacking up among the worst. Yes, Jim Molinari’s Leathernecks have a shot if they win the Summit tournament, but that’s less than a 50-50 proposition for a team that lost 39-38 earlier to Savannah State (since avenged) and has not beaten anyone of consequence. Recent victims were Nebraska-Omaha, Greenville and IUPUI.
Stuck on three wins are NIU (3-11) and EIU (3-15), and if you had high hopes for Illinois State, the Redbirds are 0-5 in the Missouri Valley. By the way, since 2007, when SIU was ruling the Valley, the Salukis show an overall 51/2-year audit of 75-98.
And if you think DePaul is Chicago’s best hope, consider that the Demons fell 69-61 to Loyola on Dec. 29, just lost at UConn by 20 and are underdogs at home tonight against Cincinnati. The Big East has not been kind to the Demons.
Change is in the air
John Groce has reached the “shape-up point” with his UI lineup. Particularly concerned with frontcourt play and rebounding, Groce said Monday: “Mike Shaw has earned more minutes. He got an opportunity and he tried to do what he was supposed to do. He was locked in despite the high probability, prior to Saturday, that he would not play. That says a lot about his character.”
Shaw scored his third field goal of the season, the ball appearing to carom off a Wisconsin defender. And he produced one of two UI assists in the game, raising the question whether the UI’s starting lineup ever played a game without an assist in the modern era.
Groce set a goal of more assists than turnovers — a goal achieved by his Ohio teams — and the Illini are now minus-14 even as they kept mistakes in single figures the last two games. The Illini also fell to minus-8 in total rebounds for the season.
After 18 games, Illinois has no player ranked among the conference’s top 10 in rebounding, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point percentage.
“We’re not going to panic and lose poise because of Saturday’s game (a 74-51 loss),” said Groce. “We just want to come out more aggressive and do what we do better.”
In this state, only the Illini have demonstrated a skill level sufficient to make the 2013 NCAA tournament. When they shot 41 percent on treys in the first 10 games, it looked automatic. But that dropped to 25.5 percent in the last eight games (5 for 38 in the last two), that was accompanied by slippage on both the defense and playmaking sides.
Now 1-3 in the conference, it is imperative the Illini return to .500 against Northwestern and Nebraska before wading into the tougher portion of the schedule.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A look at how the state of Illinois’ basketball stacks up against its neighbors:
Indiana Win pct.: 63.1
Notre Dame 14-2
Indiana State 10-6
Ball State 7-7
Kentucky Win pct.: 63.3
Eastern Kentucky 14-3
Western Kentucky 10-8
Morehead State 8-10
Northern Kentucky 4-9
Iowa Win pct.: 60.0
Iowa State 11-4
Northern Iowa 9-8
Wisconsin Win pct.: 55.4
Green Bay 8-9
Missouri Win pct.: 51.8
St. Louis 12-4
SE Missouri State 10-9
Missouri State 5-12
Illinois Win pct.: 51.4
Western Illinois 14-3
Illinois State 9-8
Southern Illinois 8-8
Chicago State 5-14
Northern Illinois 3-11
Eastern Illinois 3-15