A sports columnist’s mailbag: Illini fans need a reality check

Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson cuts down the net after the MVC championship game between Northern Iowa and Illinois State on March 8, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

John asks: If the Illini play against ISU in the NIT, is that a good or bad thing?

It was officially announced Sunday that the Illini would play as a 3-seed in the NIT. They travel to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to take the on Crimson Tide in the NIT’s opening round Tuesday.

The only way that Illinois could meet Illinois State in the NIT would be if the two teams made it to the championship game at Madison Square Garden.

While unlikely, I would love to see this matchup.

I would honestly love to see Redbirds take down the Illini. This has nothing to do with the fact that I attended Illinois State my freshman year before transferring to Illinois. I really didn’t like my time at Illinois State, and actually more often than not, root against ISU athletics for this reason.

That being said, when I did attend ISU, Illinois students that I would interact with always had a superiority complex. I understand this from an academic standpoint. Nothing against anyone who goes to Illinois State, but in terms of national and state rankings, U of I has always been ahead of ISU.

I never quite understood Illinois students and fans feeling of superiority over Illinois State when it came to athletics.

When I was a freshman, Illinois didn’t even make the NIT. Illinois State just missed an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament after losing a thriller to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game. They lost that game in large part because of current Bulls forward Doug McDermott. I remember that game pretty well because I was there, and I cried on the bus ride home.

When I transferred to Illinois, I thought I would be attending a school where major athletics were a strong suit.

I was wrong.

Illinois football, while slowly improving, has been bad in my three years. Illinois State football plays in the FCS, but head coach Brock Spack has completely turned that program around. The Redbirds have suddenly become a power FCS school and made it all the way to the FCS championship game last year.

Illinois basketball was fun my sophomore year, when John Groce led a team of overachievers to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Since then, Illinois has missed the tournament in two straight years.

Illinois State basketball made it to the Missouri Valley championship game this season and nearly took down one of the nation’s best teams, Northern Iowa. Illinois State basketball is improving.

Going back to the original question, I would love nothing more than for my former school to take down the Illini in the NIT. Illinois fans need a reality check. It seems like even two straight NCAA tournament misses won’t do the trick.

I would bet that a majority of “Illini Nation” believes Illinois basketball is in a much better place than Illinois State basketball. This simply is not true, and Illinois fans would be forced to accept this if the two teams met in the NIT.

If Illinois and Illinois State met in the NIT Championship, the Redbirds would be NIT Champions.

Erik asks: By all accounts, Groce is an excellent recruiter. But at what point do we start questioning his coaching? Do you see a potential staff mix-up in the future?

If nothing else, Groce has shown to be a solid recruiter in his three years at Illinois. The problem has been execution.

You can recruit all of the four- and five-star guys you want, but if they don’t play their hearts out for you, it won’t equal wins.

In his first three years, I can only think of one team that seemed to play to its full potential and beyond, and that was in his first season. That 2012-13 team wasn’t, by anyone’s standards, supremely talented.

Since then, we haven’t seen a Groce-coached Illinois team that has played to anywhere close to its full potential. This is a problem, and the time is now to start questioning his coaching.

There is a difference between being close to the hot seat and questing a coach’s abilities.

Illinois has missed out on the tournament the last two years. With the talent and resources it has, this is pretty inexcusable. I would say Groce has at least another season before any coaching changes are even considered, but it’s time to adjust and make the Illini perennial guests to the dance.

Steve asks: With back-to-back NITs and football making a bowl game last year, is Illinois now a football school?

Hell, yes, Illinois is now a football school.

At least until proven otherwise.

I know, I know it sounds crazy, but Tim Beckman has shown improvement in each of his first three seasons. The Illini went bowling last season, and Beckman just continues to bring solid talent into the program.

Just last week he received commitments from four-star running back Kentrail Moran and three-star quarterback Eli Peters. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it.

Illinois basketball on the other hand hasn’t really been a relevant basketball team in years. I’m sorry to melt your orange and blue hearts, but it’s true.

I hope you’re ready to throw on your No. 12 Illinois jerseys (which obviously do not represent Illinois QB West Lunt, of course) in the fall.

Get excited for football, Illinois football.

Sam is a senior in Media.

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@sam_sherman5