Illini’s and Cubs’ fanbases are not that different from each other


Ethan Scholl

Illinois wins (66-56) over Chicago State on Wednesday, November 15th.

By Thomas Polcyn , Illini hoops columnist

Growing up as a Chicago Cubs and Illinois sports fan, I didn’t always see the best products on the field.

Aside from the World Series win in 2016, even the successful seasons have been somewhat of a downer.

Disappointments have come in the 2003 Cubs with Steve Bartman, the 2005 Illini losing in the National Championship and so on and so on.

Now, you may ask, why is he comparing the Chicago Cubs to the state of Illini basketball? Well, here’s exactly why they are much more similar than you may have previously thought.

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    The fans

    For starters, both have tremendous fanbases. The north-siders and Illini faithful often tend to be one in the same, but even for those Illini fans who support the White Sox or Cardinals or a Cubs fan who supports Northwestern or Notre Dame, there is one common denominator: They love their teams through the ups and the downs.

    Any reasonable Illini or Cubs fan would have had plenty of reasons to waver in their support and to cheer on a different team over the last decade or so, but no matter what, even through the Mike Thomases and Tim Beckmans of the world, they stayed true. Why is that? I don’t really know, but I do know there’s definitely a huge sense of loyalty between both sides and there is not much anybody can do to change that.

    One man to rule them all — plus a manager — and a couple of head coaches

    As a die-hard Cubs fan, I will go out and say that none of what has happened over the last few seasons happened without the one and only Theo Epstein. Since day one on the job, Epstein laid out his plan and he executed. In fact, he has surpassed his goals. Nobody thought that Cubs team would be a contender in 2015, let alone the World Series Champions in 2016. Even though they were unable to repeat, three straight NL championship series appearances and one World Series title are certainly not too shabby.

    As for Illinois, that man is Josh Whitman. That being said, the results are not necessarily there yet, but with time comes success. In Epstein’s first seasons with the Cubs, I can remember at least one season off-hand with 100+ losses, and while that is never fun, you have to take the positives with the negatives.

    Losing 100 games sucks, but I can tell you I personally tuned in to nearly every game, and while the results were not there, it was still a joy to watch what Epstein was building and getting an early look at the future of the team. I can remember watching the first games of guys like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and so many more. Though not all of them ultimately became a piece that contributed to the title, they still gave me reasons to be excited.

    Just like the Cubs, we have now seen two seasons of Lovie Smith football that have been 3-9 and 2-10, respectively, and it has at least given us something to get excited about. The freshmen have been great in their short time on campus and there are plenty of pieces to build on. I know that I have the faith in Smith and Co. to get it done in the near future.

    But, to get back to basketball, this is a team we need to show patience with. Fans have heard that for years, but for the first time in a long time, I really believe it. The freshmen have shown flashes of greatness and they are only going to get better as the year goes on. We are only in year one of the Brad Underwood era and though the team is 7-4, think about each of their losses. Wake Forest was very winnable, Maryland featured a 20+ point comeback before ultimately falling by one point, Northwestern probably should have been a win and UNLV was another game that was within reach.

    While you’d ideally like to see them close out those close games, this team is a few calls, bounces and mistakes from being 11-0. Not to mention, this is all while starting at  least two freshmen in each and every game.

    Underwood and Joe Maddon aren’t very similar in terms of personality — really not even a little — but one thing is for sure: They know how to get the best out of their teams. The Illini have dropped some games early, but I can promise you, they will come around. Though the Illini might not be a lock for the tournament this season, I’d be willing to bet that sooner rather than later, they will regain their status as an annual lock for March Madness.

    Young bucks stepping up, but veterans still rule

    In 2015, the Cubs’ first NLCS appearance in recent history, the team was loaded with talent, but not much experience. Ultimately, the young talent couldn’t keep it going, leading to their demise in the NLCS. But, the next season, Epstein and Co. brought in the likes of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward and those moves ultimately helped the Cubs to the title.

    This year for the Illini, they have been mostly led by some combination of Leron Black, Aaron Jordan and the freshmen, with occasional big games from Michael Finke, Te’Jon Lucas and Mark Alstork, who have all been great in their own right but have all experienced their off nights. With a team this young, those off nights can be costly and in some of the losses, they certainly have been.

    The overall point in this comparison is that this team has a ton of talent and could potentially make a run to the tournament, but a little more experience would certainly help. The freshman group has been wonderful so far and is a great story for the season, but in the end, the lack of experience may hurt this team. Looking to the future, as the team will be bringing in more size, shooting and a guy like Ayo Dosunmu — all while the team gains more experience — this group has the potential to be scary good.

    What’s it all mean? 

    To wrap this up, I thought it would be appropriate to share one final thought.

    In 2011, the Cubs lost 91 games before going on to lose 101 in 2012, 96 in 2013 and 89 in 2014, eventually starting their NLCS streak in 2015.

    Illini football still has some way to go, but I can guarantee I’ll be around #TrustingTheProccess until Lovie can bring them back to the promised land.

    As for Illini hoops? They are four years removed from an NCAA tournament appearance and are coming off a 20-win season. The team has a fantastic group of young talent, one of the consensus top coaches in the region and the potential to be a contender in the Big Ten within the next year.

    Taking everything into consideration, the 2017 Illini look to be in a much better position than the Cubs were in 2015.

    But maybe that’s just me.

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