Illinois basketball never found its footing

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know my sure-to-be-accurate prediction of Wednesday’s Illinois game against Minnesota, read no further.

The matchup with the 13-seeded Gophers (8-22) in the Big Ten tournament almost certainly won’t be Illinois basketball’s last game of the season. If it is, something will have gone horribly wrong.

Minnesota was terrible before suspending a quarter of its team for the rest of the season, and that was with a healthy Joey King on its roster. The Gophers senior is now sidelined with a fractured foot for Wednesday’s game, so Minnesota is essentially down to five scholarship players and a walk-on point guard against Illinois.

Minnesota basketball is a disaster, and the Illini have already beaten the Gophers twice this season.

Assuming the Illini show up at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday with any interest in competing, they’ll move on to face Iowa Thursday in the tournament’s second round. It’s arguably a better draw than the last three years, when John Groce’s teams were stuck in the 8/9 slot with a third-round date with the No. 1 seed looming. But earning the No. 12 seed in a 14-team league is nothing to be proud of.

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How did Illini basketball fall this far?

At 13-18 and 5-13 in the Big Ten, Illinois is almost certain to tie the record for most losses in program history when its 19th comes later this week. Among those losses were four blowouts by 25 points or more, which hasn’t happened to an Illinois basketball team in 110 years.

With attendance at newly-renovated State Farm Center cratering as the games went on, the 2015-16 season will likely go down as one of the worst in program history.

It will be tempting to put an asterisk in the Illinois record books above this season’s abysmal win-loss mark, because it seemed as if it was doomed from the start by forces outside anybody’s control.

Senior point guard Tracy Abrams learned he would miss a second-straight season after tearing his Achilles in fall practice. Illinois best incoming freshman, Jalen Coleman-Lands, had his offseason stolen from him by a stress fracture in his leg. Sophomore Leron Black was the presumed starter at forward, but was never able to fully recover from a preseason meniscus injury on the way to missing 24 games.

A meniscus injury also caused starting center Mike Thorne Jr. to miss 23 games in eerily similar fashion to Black.

The season got off to a dismal start in a sleepy Springfield convention center while State Farm Center was still under construction, and the absence of starting guard Kendrick Nunn for the first five games due to a thumb injury likely swung a couple of those contests in their opponent’s favor.

As the injuries piled up and the losses mounted, it was clear that Groce’s fourth team at Illinois would never find its footing.

In a season with so much adversity, evaluating this Illini team’s development and outlook for the future under Groce becomes much more challenging.

Coleman-Lands has emerged as a sharpshooter and a soon-to-be all-around stud, and center Maverick Morgan made a leap at the center position that hardly anyone expected in November. Malcolm Hill did all he could to hold the fort while the walls caved in around him, averaging 18.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists on his way to earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors.

Those are some of the positives, but Groce ultimately probably ensured another year to prove himself under new athletic director Josh Whitman by showing that his team hadn’t quit. Throughout all the misery, the Illini players didn’t give up on the season. They were losing, but at least they were still trying.

Despite the injuries, there are still valid concerns about Illinois’ progression throughout the season. Individual players were clearly getting better, but the losses frequently still followed the same script. Too often the offensive sets were unimaginative, and long scoring droughts persisted from November to March. The defense never improved past being historically atrocious.

Next year’s team will be better with minimal departures and key contributors returning from injuries, but it’s fair to argue that Groce’s current team was less than the sum of its parts.

While this season is on life support, it isn’t dead yet. The beauty of college basketball is that every team gets some sort of postseason play, and Groce can use the dream of the Dance and an automatic NCAA bid to motivate his guys until the end.

“We just want to get to the next line on the bracket and come up for air,” Groce said.

That’s the only way a team in Illinois’ position can approach the Big Ten Tournament, with a daunting five-game mountain they’ll have to climb to get Illini fans to believe in miracles.

If past seasons were an indication, Illinois is set for a desperate Big Ten Tournament run. In 1999 and 2008 — the two worst Illinois hoops seasons in recent memory until this year’s ongoing nightmare — the underdog Illini stormed to the Big Ten tournament final, ending those ugly campaigns on a relatively high note despite ultimately falling short.

If this season is any indication, Illinois has an extremely improbable road to the semifinal, much less the title game. Getting there would mean the Illini suddenly shook this season’s bad habits and played completely above their heads for several games in a row.

Stranger things have happened in March in college basketball. They just don’t happen very often.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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