State of the Illini men’s basketball program: Halfway through Big Ten play

I have two roommates — one a New Jersey native who graduated from Rutgers, the other a quintessential Illini insider who hails from northwest suburban Palatine, Ill. Both are named Nick, both are 6-foot-3, both have Italian last names. They have dark hair, play the same games, eat virtually the same types of foods and love to wax about all things sports-related.

Thanks to the difference of origin, though, there is a balanced flavor contrast in Apartment 204.

Nick C. grew up with visions of Frank Williams dancing in his head. He has a room that looks like it was sponsored by the allied Illini spirit shops of Green Street. We love him and value his presence, but he is such an Illinois homer that he has earned the nickname “Captain Illini” and is perpetually in one of four stages of mercurial Illini syndrome: optimism, elation, dejection, ennui, repeat. When Illinois wins, it “could win out the rest of the season.” When it loses, he descends into phase three of the cycle, marked by expressions of “Fire _____” and “We don’t even deserve to make the __________.” Within 12 hours, he is invariably back on his message board of choice, and the cycle begins anew. Nick C. is an Illini fan’s Illini fan.

Nick F., on the other hand, offers a strangely perfect yin to Nick C.’s yang. A relative outsider to the Midwest and Big Ten, he offers a much-needed dose of external perspective to our roundtable debates. Even if his opinion in Illini matters leans toward laissez-faire, without him the apartment’s conversation would teeter dangerously toward the provincial end of the spectrum. The guy owns four NY Giants hats and is more preoccupied with his Knights losing Greg Schiano than any personnel decision in Champaign; needless to say, he has no qualms calling an Illini spade a spade.

I’m often caught in the middle, bouncing back and forth between Nick C.’s mercurial Illini syndrome and Nick F.’s apathy, thanks to the fact I did not grow up an Illini fan and transferred as a sophomore. When I walk in to our TV area (dual screens, of course) following a game, the storm begins to stir, at least for me. Recently, these storms have been at an all-time high in both intensity and frequency. With a football season that resembled Six Flags’ Giant Drop, a coaching search and a basketball season that has polarized the Illini nation, there has been no shortage of discussion.

I have, however, noticed one thing in particular as we reach the halfway point of Big Ten play: Illini fans seem to have forgotten what this season was about. Thanks to a couple of surprising wins over Ohio State and Gonzaga, it seems the fan base has contracted a case of the win-crazy syndrome that plagues Nick C. and myself at times.

The way I see it, this season was about two things: changing the culture of the program and developing young talent. Therefore, these two goals need to be the focus when addressing an individual point on 2011-12’s map. That means when an individual week or month of the year inevitably goes under the microscope, it is essential to keep in mind the greater picture. In October, who could have imagined Bruce Weber coming under fire for losing to Minnesota on the road, regardless of Trevor Mbakwe’s absence? I am not advocating a personnel decision one way or another, but rather making a call to re-center the conversation on the big picture.

When this Illini team (over)achieves in a headline-grabbing victory, all of a sudden that becomes the expectation. When it scrape its knee against a Penn State or Purdue, it seems as if Illini nation has literally been robbed, all the while losing sight of the more realistic October prospectus. Here’s how Illinois has fared in the two areas that matter most in what in reality is and was always going to be a rebuilding year.

_Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit._