Back in early December, when Yale popped into town, it became apparent to the State Farm Center assemblage that Illinois had a rebounding problem.
The Ivy League leaders outboarded John Groce’s gravity-bound athletes by an incredible 48-25 margin. And these were visitors who supposedly spend most of their time in a classroom.
It was a week past the Ides of March in 2014, and Iowans’ attention turned to wrestling.
The big-revenue sports appeared stuck in a muddy cornfield. Kirk Ferentz’s footballers, having lost to Iowa State for the third time in four years, ruled hapless Illinois but finished in a 5-for-7 swoon that included a 51-14 loss to Minnesota.
Question for the day: With long-awaited news ready to pop any day, how many rabbits can a new athletic director pull out of his hat to settle Illini Nation’s unrest?
Forgetting that Rutgers carries a No. 219 RPI basketball rank and has now lost 24 consecutive Big Ten regular-season games ...
Forgetting that Purdue whipped the Knights by 50 points, and 10 others prevailed by at least 26 ...
Forgetting that Illinois presented no defensive answer for the free-wheeling penetrations of freshman Corey Sanders (39 points, 12 assists) ...
Attempting to win basketball games with just two legitimate scorers is weighing heavily on John Groce’s 2-7 Big Ten team.
The Illini are easy pickings for rival game plans.
Pay attention: Don’t let Kendrick Nunn go left and double Malcolm Hill wherever possible. Don’t worry about the punchless post or point guards who seldom shoot.
Illini linebacking would carry a more robust look next August if new assistant coach Tim McGarigle had the UI’s second-leading tackler, T.J. Neal, cracking heads alongside 2015 backups LaKeith Walls and B.J. Bello plus prep commits Amani Jones of Chicago Phillips and Tim Walton of Detroit Cass.
But all five took a powder. They will play elsewhere.
Among the worst of the frequently verbalized and blindly accepted trite sayings is this: “They won because they wanted it more,” or more specifically, “They grabbed those rebounds based on will.”
Let’s harken back to my sophomore year in high school. Bill Baird took me aside and insisted that “if I put my mind to it,” I could outperform senior Gene Brown on the football field.
It is often noted that the University of Illinois is perfectly located between three metropolitan areas housing more than 14 million people.
Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis are within easy driving distance and possess large high schools with productive athletic programs.
The Illini’s 76-71 overtime triumph in Minnesota on Saturday night rivaled “The Great Escape.”
But a win is a win is a win is a win, so let’s keep that in mind before returning to John Groce’s earlier insistence that, even in victory, we mustn’t overlook the dreaded shortcomings.
If you know the next UI athletic director, you are more informed than the rest of us.
My take has always been: The quest is running on parallel tracks, one leading to Colorado AD Rick George and the other involving everyone else, mostly those with Illini backgrounds like Josh Whitman, Larry Lubin and Tom Michael.