As Big Ten reloads in hoops, Illinois must keep pace

Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice (24) steals the ball from an inbound play during dying seconds of the game against Michigan at State Farm Center, on Feb. 12, 2014. The Illini won 64-52.

By Alex Roux

On the last weekend in March 2015, fans of Big Ten basketball could collectively hold their heads high.

Having been pitted against each other for 10 straight weeks as the league’s fourteen teams battled for conference supremacy, this was a time for all fans of Big Ten schools to be proud. Michigan State and Wisconsin had both punched their tickets to the Final Four, marking the first time since 2005 that two Big Ten teams had reached the national semifinal.

Social media (especially Twitter) has enhanced that sense of conference affinity, and I noticed dozens of Illinois fans take to the platform to celebrate the Final Four by using the hashtag #B1G.

This sense of pride was further strengthened by the internal notion that the conference had something to prove. Having been self-proclaimed “The Nation’s Premier Basketball Conference,” it was apparent that the Big Ten’s overall basketball strength had taken a step back from its relative peak in 2012-13, when you would have been hard-pressed to find any arguments that it was the deepest conference in the nation.

But the always-formidable ACC and resurgent Big 12 were both impressive in 2014-15, bruising the Big Ten’s ego in its year of expansion. Only Wisconsin, Maryland and Ohio State were consistently ranked in the top 25 all season. If you throw in the added insecurity of not claiming a national title since Michigan State in 2000, it makes sense that the Spartans’ and Badgers’ shared Final Four spotlight was a reassuring sight for Big Ten fans.

Even though Duke beat both Sparty and Bucky on its way to another title, the Big Ten came away feeling pretty good about itself. And in the six weeks since the nets were cut down in Indianapolis, several talented transfers have filtered in, and a handful of the conference’s top NBA prospects have turned down the Draft, setting the Big Ten up for an extremely strong 2015-16 field.

But conference pride is usually a fallback for when your favorite team is already eliminated, and it’s only a crutch for a short time. Ultimately, fans care about their actual teams more than anything, and they desperately want them to be the ones representing the Big Ten on the biggest stage.

The Illinois fan base is as hungry as any for success, and three up-and-down years under John Groce (resulting in back-to-back NIT Tournament appearances) have allowed basketball analysts to grow comfortable with picking the Illini to finish somewhere around eighth in the Big Ten every year. It’s a safe prediction, considering Illinois has finished eighth, ninth and eighth once more in Groce’s three seasons with the Fighting Illini.

Many Illini fans projected upward movement into the top tier of the conference last season, foreseeing the relative weakness of their peers and hoping a much-improved squad on paper would catapult them to a top-five finish. But well-documented transfer, suspension, and injury issues combined with an inability to gel on the court derailed the season for the Fighting Illini, who wasted an opportunity to establish themselves as an elite force in the conference, much like how many of their competitors (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan) have already done.

With that temporary window now closed, a more difficult path to the top likely awaits Illinois, and Illini fans have legitimate reasons to be concerned with the recent off-season developments taking place within the conference.

Maryland has emerged as a legitimate annual contender, and the Terps may have their best chance to make some noise this upcoming season. Stud freshman Melo Trimble is returning for his sophomore season, and Duke graduate transfer Rasheed Sulaimon announced last week his intention to join the Terrapins for his final year of eligibility. Throw in McDonald’s All-American Diamond Stone to an already stacked roster, and Maryland is downright scary next year.

Indiana also seems poised to make a leap with the return of point guard Yogi Ferrell for his senior season, and freshman phenom James Blackmon, Jr.’s decision to put the NBA Draft on hold makes the Hoosiers a dangerous team. Purdue surprised a lot of people with a strong season in 2014-2015, and will return one of the best frontcourts in the country, headlined by A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas.

Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State are always solid (that’s what great coaching will do for you) and figure to compete once again for a top-five conference finish.

So where does that leave Illinois? Conventional wisdom has the Illini once again fighting for a middle-of-the-pack spot with teams like Iowa, Minnesota and a resurgent Michigan squad. Groce was able to add Charlotte graduate transfer Mike Thorne at center, which is a big addition that could drastically alter the offensive production of the Illini frontcourt.

At a minimum, the addition of Thorne combined with a veteran presence of Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill should allow the Illini to keep their heads above water in a conference that will be as competitive as ever.

Much like the entire Big Ten conference last year, Illinois has something to prove next season. Groce has something to prove. In a pivotal year for the future of Groce and the Illinois program, it will be interesting to see if the Illini will finally make a leap or continue to tread water.

They certainly can’t afford to sink.

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The Big Ten looks to return to basketball dominance in 2015-16; the challenge for #Illini is to keep pace, by @aroux94