When Illinois won the Maui Invitational, I kindly requested that no one wake me up. After such a disastrous football season, Illinois basketball had delivered to me the kind of sports bliss I assumed could only be experienced in dreamland. Well, after losing 5 of their last 7 games, the Illini have dumped a cold bucket of water on my face and snapped me back to the reality of life as an Illinois fan.
And so it begins, the all-too-familiar free fall toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
A few years ago, Illinois lost at Northwestern in a terribly frustrating game. I have a tough time handling losses to Northwestern in any sport, but there was something particularly troubling about this loss. Coming into the season, I believed the 2010-2011 Illini were poised to do something special. They had everything you need to make a run in the tournament – a veteran as your best player (Demetri McCamey), a cast of experienced seniors (Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Bill Cole), young talent returning (Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson), a phenomenal freshman class (Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard, Crandall Head), and a coach with a record of success (Bruce Weber).
The Illini started 10-1 with wins over Maryland, North Carolina, and Gonzaga, with their only loss being a 90-84 OT battle with Texas. And you know what happened? The 14th ranked Illini went into the United Center and lost to the University of Illinois-Chicago. I know, you’ve probably blocked it from your memory, but I assure you, it’s a thing that actually happened. After that game, UIC went on to lose 17 of their remaining 19 games and finished last (2-16) in the highly competitive Horizon. Illinois snuck into the tournament as a 9 seed, beat UNLV, but got bounced shortly thereafter by Kansas.
All that to say, the loss at Northwestern that season kind of put me over the edge. I remember sitting on my couch fuming, very much wanting to throw the remote against the wall. But I got myself together and realized that I needed to have a game plan to survive the remainder of that season. Being an Illinois fan without a solid set of coping mechanisms is a dangerous game to play.
Well, we’re well past the debacle of the 2010-2011 season, but it’s amazing how little has changed. So here I sit, trying to process a blowout home loss to Northwestern, the worst team in the Big Ten, in a game that we absolutely needed to win. Here are some tips for surviving the remainder of the season with as little damage to your home and your psyche as possible.
Watch Illinois games with non-Illinois fans. We’re an anxious bunch, we really are. Watching a game at Assembly Hall can be painful. When the Illini have the ball, as soon as the shot clock hits 20, the murmuring begins, and by 10, fans enter into complete panic. So when you get the chance, take in a game with some people who don’t share our “oh no it’s happening again” mentality. It eases the nerves.
Watch this video regularly. Remember that time Illinois came back from 15 points down with 4 minutes left against Arizona to earn a trip to the Final Four? Of course you do, and now isn’t the time to forget about it.
Recalculate expectations and see this team for who they are. Illinois has quite a bit of talent on the roster, but for whatever reason, can’t play well consistently. We rely heavily on the 3, and when you do that, you’re vulnerable. With the way we play, we’ll win some games we shouldn’t win, and we’ll lose some games we shouldn’t lose. I wish it wasn’t like this, but it is. Earlier in the season, we were living from deep, and now, we’re dying from it. There’s something about adopting this perspective that makes games easier to watch.
Stop believing false things. Things like, “Tyler Griffey might just get this defense thing figured out,” or, “Mike Shaw is the answer to our rebounding woes,” or, “Assembly Hall is a raucous road environment,” or, “We should have kept Bruce Weber.” For me, I started feeling better once I let go of the “Eric Gordon ruined our program” belief.
Read good articles the day after games. Illinois basketball often elicits a good amount of confusion, so take it upon yourself to read quality columns to help make sense of it all. I recommend News-Gazette beat writer Marcus Jackson over at IlliniHQ and Jeremy Werner at Orange and Blue News. To be honest, though, the best you’ll read is this guy named Robert on his blog ALionEye.com. Crazy gifted writer, and he’s sure to make you feel better (sometimes only because his misery surpasses anything we experience). I’ve sat next to him in the press box for football games, and he’s legit. And if none of that helps, there’s always Loren Tate.
Remember that things are likely to get better for Illinois basketball. I’m not making any guarantees here, but it’s reasonable to expect the Illini to improve over the next few years. Groce and his staff are solid recruiters, and, over time, they’ll bring in the talent they need to make the system work. I know this season’s collapse looks a lot like last season’s collapse, but there’s a newness to everything that makes me feel like the program will get turned around. I’ll put it this way: I feel better right now than I did a year ago, and I think a year from now I’ll feel better than I do now. Progress, people. Progress.