How good are the Illinois Fighting Illini? They stand at 12-2 after beating the Indiana Hoosiers 83-80 in overtime earlier this week to open conference play, but Illinois has played this part before, so no one knows if this team is very good or just up to its old games.
Bruce Weber was notorious for leading Illinois to hot starts, only to collapse quickly in the Big Ten Conference. Even his successor, John Groce, succumbed to the Fighting Illini curse last year – Illinois started 13-1 but went 8-10 in the Big Ten, so it’s no wonder that the Fighting Illini have gone largely unnoticed so far this season.
Is Illinois is the outlying team that is most likely to challenge one of the four ranked Big Ten teams for a spot on the top shelf, or is it the conundrum of years past? Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps this is a group that will finish in the middle of the Big Ten Conference not because it’s underachieving, but because it’s a young core of players that are working on changing the overall culture surrounding Illinois basketball.
Five of the eight regulars in last season’s rotation have moved on, and coach Groce has a chance to mold the team how he wants it to play, as opposed to last year when it was publicly obvious that he was scratching and clawing to get his players to lose their old defeatist ways and start believing in themselves.
Last year’s team still buckled like it did under Weber because it had Weber’s players reverting to their Weber ways. No one was a bigger question mark than guard Brandon Paul, who was last seen at your local mall cackling before hoisting a shot in the faces of an approaching family of five instead of passing the ball to the wide-open kiosk worker. Now, this team is led by Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from the Drake Bulldogs who never played for Weber and who only knows Groce’s Illinois culture.
Who knows whether this team will embrace uncertainty and play hard, play smart and – gasp – play together when the times get tough. This team still has a lot of holdovers from Weber’s time in Champaign, and a card house in a tornado was more resilient than those teams. So, it may take one more year for Illinois to shake its demons.
Still, the early signs are promising. Three freshmen – Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate — have played in every game and from the looks of it, Groce is getting the veterans and the newcomers to mesh well.
This will likely be another ‘transition’ season because old habits die hard, and at least half the roster was recruited by Weber. As long as Illinois wins eight conference games, it ought to end up with a NCAA Tournament berth, so the growing pains shouldn’t be too hard to stomach for fans. Starting next year, though, expectations will rise and then we will find out just how good Illinois has become.