I decided to go to the Illinois Midnight Madness on a whim. Spurred on by friends still on campus and my general excitement for the team, I hopped in my car and embarked on the two hour trek to Champaign. As I got closer and closer, my excitement grew higher and higher. I couldn’t wait to see this Illini team in action for the first time. Everything seemed to be coming together for a deep tourney run. The team had experience, talent, depth, and a solid coach. While the event turned out to be disappointing, it still couldn’t squash my high hopes for the upcoming year.
What followed was the most frustrating season of Illinois basketball I’ve ever witnessed, which concluded with a 73-59 defeat at the hand of the Kansas Jayhawks. It certainly wasn’t the worst (the 2007-08 debacle during my sophomore year takes the cake), but the expectations heaped on the team before the season made it the most disappointing. The 73-62 thrashing of UNLV in the tournament helped ease the pain somewhat, but I had higher aspirations for this team. I’d like to take a look back at what happened over the course of this crazy season.
After dispatching several cupcakes to start the year, Illinois traveled to Madison Square Garden to take on the Texas Longhorns in the 2K Sports Classic Benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer. This was the first real test for Illinois and they performed admirably. Despite losing in overtime, the Illini showed they could compete with the big boys. They placed third in the event by beating Maryland the next night.
Illinois took care of business the next couple weeks, posting impressive wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga. In both of these games, the Illini shot the ball extremely well and executed their offense to near perfection. They climbed their way up the polls to #12.
Then there was the UIC game. What should have been a harmless match-up against a sister school turned into a rough and tumble affair. UIC led for much of the game until Illinois appeared to take control late. But in a harbinger of things to come, the Illini choked away an eight point lead and lost (this was extremely embarrassing because UIC turned out to be AWFUL). They followed this disheartening loss with another collapse down the stretch against rival Missouri.
With a two game losing streak heading into Big Ten play, Illinois was intent on turning things around. They won their first three conference tilts, including a smackdown of Northwestern that saw the Illini shoot a school record 70.5%. Unfortunately, this would be the last time they would win consecutive games all season.
Throughout the rest of the year, the Illini just couldn’t find any consistency. They lost close games on the road to Penn St., Indiana (especially egregious), and Northwestern. They blew an eight point second half lead against #1 Ohio St. However, they were still able to come up with enough wins to put them in position to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite the Big Ten Tournament disaster against Michigan, the Illini still had a strong enough resume (19-13, 9-9 Big Ten, RPI 45, SOS 19) to earn a nine seed in the Big Dance. As I mentioned earlier, they were able to come up with one victory before bowing out to Kansas.
So just why did Illinois fall short of expectations? I have already harped on the seniors plenty in previous posts. They didn’t make enough improvement to take Illinois to the next level. I would even say there was some regression (cough, Demetri McCamey). But they weren’t terrible and weren’t the only reason this team disappointed.
The much celebrated freshman class of Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard, and Crandall Head did not contribute as much as expected. Richmond showed flashes of his potential, but also had plenty of games where he was invisible. He also has had his share of off-the-court issues, and this resulted in him getting suspended for the NCAA Tournament. Leonard had a few impressive dunks, but often looked lost on both ends of the floor. This led to him getting inconsistent minutes. Head was coming off major knee surgery, so I didn’t expect too much of him. He didn’t play much early, but earned minutes later in the season and did some nice things.
Another reason for the disappointment were the struggles of D.J. Richardson. After earning Big 10 Freshman of the Year honors the year before, I was hoping for a big step forward from him. He started the year strong, but went through a long shooting slump that made other parts of his game suffer as well. On a positive note, Richardson was excellent in both tournament games. Hopefully he can carry this over into next season.
One player who I thought was a real bright spot was Brandon Paul. While he still had his clunker games, Paul always brought energy even when he wasn’t scoring. He also spent a lot of time backing up McCamey at point guard. This isn’t his natural position, but he handled the duties admirably. I’d rather have him be a full time wing, but he can (and will likely have to) be a serviceable point guard going forward.
Now that this season is over, it’s time to look to the future. There’s a lot to discuss and plenty of questions to be answered. I’ll have plenty more on this in an upcoming post.
About the Author
Written by Jason Patt
My name is Jason Patt and I recently graduated from the University of Illinois. I received a degree in Sports Management and also minored in Communication and Business. I am an avid follower of Illinois sports and also most major Chicago sports teams. Along with blogging about Illini basketball here, I'm an editor at Bulls 101.