There’s no denying the past few years have been rough for Illinois fans. Since their surprising 2008 Rose Bowl appearance, the Illini football program has vastly underachieved, going 24-37 (11-28 in the Big Ten) with teams loaded with NFL talent. And Illini basketball hasn’t provided much refuge, having failed to make the NCAA tournament in 3 of the past 5 seasons (after heading to the dance 22 of the previous 27 seasons).

But Illinois fans have reasons to be thankful, and what better time to reflect on those reasons than Thanksgiving. Here are a few…

Aaron Bailey

The 6’2″ four-star dual-threat Quarterback out of Bolingbrook committed to Tim Beckman and the Illini in April, and, shockingly, hasn’t wavered from that commitment. Rivals ranks Bailey as the top QB in the state of Illinois and the 8th best dual-threat QB in the nation. If three-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase carries his struggles into the 2013 season, I have to believe Bailey will see significant time under center as a true freshman.

New Videoboard at Memorial Stadium

I know, I know. This seems like a dumb thing to point out given the embarrassment that is Illinois football these days. But I still like it a lot. The new LED display will measure 125 feet by 54 feet (the current scoreboard dimensions are 48 feet by 68 feet). The new videoboard will be one of the biggest in the nation and will completely change the look of Memorial Stadium – as a point of reference, Ohio State’s scoreboard measures 124 feet by 42 feet. Additionally, three ribbon displays will be added on the east and west balconies and under the scoreboard, and a smaller display will be installed on the southeast tower. Construction is set to begin in December and should conclude by August.

Blue Helmets

I know it sounds like I’m reaching here, but come on, those matte blue helmets with the orange block I are awesome. Honestly, probably one of the highlights of the season.

John Groce

After being publicly rejected by the two hottest coaches in college basketball – Shaka Smart of VCU and Brad Stevens of Butler – Illini fans were forced to accept the obvious, that Illinois basketball no longer represented the national brand it once did. But John Groce made his way from Athens to Champaign, and, in just 8 months, has the program trending upward. Groce has instilled confidence in a team that lost 12 of its final 14 games a season ago, and has implemented an offense that seems to fit his personnel well.

2013 Recruiting Class

Many wondered how well Groce would be able to recruit, but he’s quieted his critics by signing a 2013 recruiting class ranked 10th in the nation and 2nd in the Big Ten by Rivals. Simeon shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and Belleville forward Malcolm Hill highlight the class, and the additions of Jaylon Tate, Austin Colbert, and Maverick Morgan will fit nicely into Groce’s system.  And it’s true that finishing second is the same as finishing last in the sphere of recruiting, but coming up just short on Tyler Ennis, Demetrius Jackson, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (all top-30 recruits) shows that Groce can be a player among the top talent in the nation.

Maui Invitational

Just before the Illini tipped against USC in their opener at the Maui Invitational, I started to get pretty tired. I fought off the sleep, of course, and saw one of the best halves of Illinois basketball in recent memory. A win over Chaminade a night later put the Illini in the championship, and a convincing win over Butler gave them the title. And while I watched Illinois celebrate, part of me thought that maybe I did fall asleep before that first game against USC, that I would all of a sudden wake up to find Illinois taking the floor to take on the Trojans. But it really did happen. The Illini took care of business in Maui, and, even though the competition wasn’t spectacular, Illinois basketball feels relevant again for the first time in a long time. And that’s definitely reason to be thankful.

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