Krushed! Students look back at unfinished season
March 27, 2020
In an alternate reality, thousands of Illinois fans all across the country would be getting ready to watch the Illini take on the Villanova Wildcats in the Sweet 16, a mere few days after sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois upset San Diego State at the buzzer in the Round of 32. In this reality, though, the most recent second weekend tournament game Illinois fans have to watch is the 2005 Elite 8 comeback against Arizona.
In what could have been a special March for the Illini and the nine other Big Ten teams projected to have made the tournament, COVID-19 ripped out the final pages of a story that wasn’t finished. Seniors like Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, Illinois’ Andres Feliz and Penn State’s Lamar Stevens will all leave college with a sour taste in their mouths, never having closure over where their senior seasons could have gone. While it is obviously painful for these players who have given their sweat and tears for four years to play in the Big Dance, fans all across the country are also feeling the pain.
For fans of Rutgers, this was going to be the first time since 1991 that they could have seen their Scarlet Knights play in the NCAA tournament.
Penn State fans, who haven’t witnessed their team in the NCAA tournament since 2011, knew this was a team head coach Pat Chambers was building for years. With Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins set to graduate, it might take another five years for Penn State to make the tournament again.
Then there’s Illinois, a program with a rich basketball tradition that is currently experiencing their longest tournament drought in program history since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. After years of unmet expectations, John Groce and the growing pains of Brad Underwood’s first two seasons, this was supposed to be the year the pain ended. With Dosunmu, junior guard Trent Frazier and Feliz all back, along with the arrival of freshman center Kofi Cockburn, Illinois was supposed to get that tournament monkey off their back. While Illini fans didn’t get to see it come to fruition, one thing certainly did come back: the Orange Krush and fan excitement.
The Orange Krush, the student section during Illinois basketball games, hadn’t had a lot to cheer about prior to this year. But this season changed that real fast, and a seat in the student section became the hottest ticket in town, which was uncommon before this year.
“Every year, there were those few big games where it was sold out,” senior Orange Krush member Jacob Rajlich said. “This year, that was a regular occurrence. There were lines outside the stadium hours before the games. That never happened before.”
Rajlich, who grew up only a few minutes away from campus and attended virtually every home game with his grandfather, is a regular at all Illini athletic events. While basketball might take the top spot on his list, Rajlich attends football, volleyball, women’s basketball, baseball, softball and wrestling events.
His favorite memory, though, was senior night against Iowa, a game in which Illinois held on to win 78-76, clinching a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. Little did Raljich know, that would be the last Illini event he would ever see as a student.
“Illinois sports are inseparable for me,” he said. “It’s what I do, how I spend my time. Now it’s just gone and it’s hard to process at times. I took that game for granted, and now that’s my last game.”
When it was announced that the tournament would be canceled due to COVID-19, Illini Pride president Julia Greuel was busy trying to find the next batch of leaders who would take the mantle.
“It was a really tough day,” Greuel said. “We were actually going through interviews who will take over Orange Krush. We cried a lot. It was emotional, especially being a senior.”
Kyle Barry, the leader of the Orange Krush, revealed big plans were in store for members of the Orange Krush.
“We were going to get some tickets, no matter where Illinois got placed for the tournament,” Barry said. “If it was in St. Louis or Cleveland or Lincoln, Nebraska, we were gonna rent a bus and do a road trip.”
These seniors, who never got the opportunity to watch Illinois participate in the NCAA Tournament as students, were all emotional about the canceled postseason. Whether it was watching Illinois let their tournament chances evaporate in Groce’s final season or back-to-back losing seasons to start off Underwood’s tenure, hope for the future was the only thing these seniors had. The memory of this season will always be odd, but it always gave them increased expectations of what this program can do.
“We get Ayo back, and all of these pieces that fit together perfectly,” Raljich said of this season. “It was fun to watch, going to every game and expecting to win almost every time. I would actually get upset when we would lose to Miami and Missouri because those were games we were expecting to win.”
Aside from the wins and losses, however, Greuel also notes the student section experience is something that has improved greatly in just one short season.
“Obviously Krush has grown a lot,” Greuel said. “It used to be just one game a year packed with a rival, but now Krush is overflowed and we had to change up a lot of stuff. The energy level is there, and the experience is so much better.”
After four years of college, these seniors who have been die-hard through good times and bad finally got to see some winning basketball that excited the students, the community and them personally. Heading into the workforce, these soon-to-be graduates will always have these experiences to remember.
The basketball team is heading into an offseason with plenty of questions. Are Ayo and Kofi staying? How will Underwood replace Alan Griffin’s production? Is Adam Miller actually coming? Despite all of these questions, it appears the re-energized Orange Krush will be there along the way.