Tate | Illinois basketball's decline a long time in the making

 

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A swinging door works best in a western tavern, not in a college basketball program.

Since February 2007, when freshman Brian Carlwell was injured in a car driven by teammate Jamar Smith, the Illini men's basketball program has been marked by major disruptions, and by players coming and going. At an astonishing rate.

Don't confuse this tailspin with the banning of Chief Illiniwek.

Sure, fans miss their inspiring symbol, but there are other non-mystical reasons why a once-upbeat program, which won five Big Ten titles in eight seasons from 1997-98 through 04-05 (two other shared titles were missed due to a last-second foul at Wisconsin in 2003 and a reviewed-disallowed trey by Rich McBride against Penn State in 2006) finds itself buried in ineptitude.

After years of set lineups, Illinois began churning the roster with "mid-major" transfers. The Illini brought in 17 short-termers as three UI coaches tried to fill lineup holes. And churning increased this past year, with new coach Brad Underwood ushering out seven squadmen and adding eight.

For every productive mid-career arrival like Trent Meacham and Rayvonte Rice (both Champaign products), there have been multiple washouts — touted guards Alex Legion and Aaron Cosby fizzled — and others barely sustained UI mediocrity ... Dominique Keller, Sam McLaurin, Jon Ekey, Rodney Alexander, Sam Maniscalco, Ahmad Starks, Alex Austin, etc.

More recently, giant additions Michael Thorne and Adonis De La Rosa have been beset by physical problems.

Why it happened

The search for answers boils down to these factors:

(1) UI recruiting has fallen off the charts in a state where downstate talent has thinned and Chicagoland stars are leaving for prep schools;

(2) A decade-plus of failures has caused modern blue-chippers to view Illinois as a non-NCAA qualifier, in other words a loser;

(3) The pileup of disastrous events carried over from the Smith-Carlwell accident to the unfortunate case of troubled Jereme Richmond, the recruiting blowup with Hoosier Eric Gordon, the 11th-hour reversals of committed prospects Cliff Alexander and Quentin Snider, the epic failure with unpredictable Darius Paul, the key loss of Kendrick Nunn, the stunning decommitment of Jeremiah Tilmon, and last year's problems leading to the departure of Mark Smith, among others.

Each incident damaged the culture, offering an explanation why Illinois is in this fix. Add in the AAU and shoe company incursions, and all Illini attempts at stability were disrupted. Way too many problems. And that doesn't include all the second-place finishes by Bruce Weber and John Groce in the recruiting marketplace.

Too much sand in your face leads to blurred vision.

Recruiting misses

Here's a theory.

After Bill Self's three successful seasons, a perceived Top 25 operation faced pressure to recruit five-star athletes. Some say Weber, a sound coach but so-so recruiter, would have been better off taking the proven approach by his mentor, Gene Keady, and more currently John Beilein.

For years, Keady was unable to attract Hoosier stars that were on IU's radar. Rather than waste time, the Purdue coach looked elsewhere, and with great success (six Big Ten titles). And Beilein hasn't allowed himself to get caught up in tricky dealings with Detroit. In the last 29 games, his Michigan team has lost only to Villanova in the NCAA final, and the Wolverine squad that will invade Champaign next Thursday night has no Detroit products among their top 10 scorers.

These recruiting showdowns evolve in strange ways. While Illinois and Indiana engaged in the Gordon debacle (Kelvin Sampson's staff hirings were geared specifically to turn Gordon), Purdue's Matt Painter stepped in and took Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JuJuan Johnson in 2007 — Illinois preferred Peoria's Bill Cole over Hummel — and Purdue, in the next four years, won one Big Ten title and finished second the other three years. Meanwhile, IU imploded and the UI dragged along at a mediocre clip.

Purdue's run of success with Hummel & Co. kept the ball rolling and solidified Painter's career, the Boilermakers winning the Big Ten in 2017 and posting 30 wins last year.

Hitting rock bottom

In bowing to Romeo Langford's spectacular show at Indiana in a 73-65 loss on Thursday, the Illini look back on an 82-119 Big Ten record following the 2006-07 season.

Simply put, with few exceptions, Illini players during this period weren't good enough. One example: In the four seasons ending in 2017, Groce started point guard Jaylon Tate 35 times while he converted 6 of 57 treys and posted per-season scoring of 1.8, 3.6, 1.8 and 2.4 points.

And now, so it seems, the Underwood system remains a mystery to the new crop ... too many fouls (285), too many layups allowed, too many forced three-point attempts, not to mention insufficient rebounding and in-paint scoring. And, worse yet, the Illini have lost traction after holding second-half leads in seven of the 10 losses going into today's noon tip at Northwestern.

Just too much inconsistency. Forward Kipper Nichols is 2 for 22 in his five-game slump on three-pointers. Key sub Da'Monte Williams has 10 field goals in 12 games. With fouls often limiting his playing time, Giorgi Bezhanishvili has scored everywhere from 2 to 22 points.

Don't scream "look out below." There's no team in the Big Ten below Illinois right now.

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