Illini Basketball & Football: Remarkably Similar Season Story Arcs

Illini Basketball & Football: Remarkably Similar Season Story Arcs

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

For Illini fans in 2011-12, both were true.

In both revenue producing sports.

On the college football gridiron, Illinois started 6-0, on the strength of some ugly wins: (Northwestern, Western Michigan), and ascended to #16 in the nation. They lost as favorites to Ohio State, then became the first team in FBS history to finish 6-6 after starting 6-0. This utter collapse prompted Athletic Director Mike Thomas to buy out coach Ron Zook’s contract, and the Illini won a bowl game after firing a coach over a team which also fired it’s coach.

Thus far, the Illini basketball season has been pretty much the same entire bi-polar story.

Bruce-Weber-Illinois

Losing is bad, and no one likes it, but there is one kind of losing that especially hurts- losing when also having high expectations.

No one had any expectations for Illini basketball entering this season, but many people started to believe in them once they got off to a fast start. At 10-0, they were nationally ranked and one of just nine undefeated teams left in college basketball. Like the football team, they had some really ugly wins (St. Bonaventure, Cornell) that made you realize the road ahead was indeed troubled.

The Illini dropped a couple games, but rebounded to beat a top five Ohio State team as Brandon Paul scored 43 points, third highest single game total in school history. Again, it was a Buckeyes game that turned the season, as the win put Illinois at 15-3, 4-1 in Big Ten conference play. Since then, they’ve gone 1-7 and went from NCAA Tourney lock to falling off the bubble.

And that whole coach getting fired thing?

Well, Google Bruce Weber and tell me if you think he’ll have a job after this season.

Weber talked like a man who knew he was canned Wednesday night, then issued a statement apologizing/explaining his actions Thursday.

One of Weber’s greatest traits is his straight-forward honesty, and the video of his press conference from the Purdue game is a must-watch for any Illini fan. What was even more telling perhaps, were comments made by Weber about the team’s lack of defense since the BEYOND UGLY 42-41 win over Michigan State. After that big win, the Illini defense collapsed for some reason and Weber explained that as a lack of desire or dedication by his players. Yet that was nothing compared to some of the stuff Weber would say a day later, further damning his players.

A problem with defense sent the Illini season downhill, just like Illini football’s failure to continue making downfield passes doomed them. It’s weird how quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receiver A.J. Jenkins were so adept at this for six games, then suddenly seemed to have lost each other. The Illini could throw the ball downfield for six games, then this basic football skill eluded them and everything went south.

Same thing with hoops, the Illini were great defenders until midseason, then the ability to do this severely deteriorated., and everything fell apart.

Football wise, if Ron Zook wasn’t enough of an individual scapegoat for you, and you must single out a player then the regression of Scheelhaase is the way to go. For a basketball version, I’d suggest point guard Sam Maniscalco. He had some decent games early and almost single-handedly won the Maryland contest in the Big Ten/ACC challenge for them. But he’s scoreless in 7 of his last 8 games, and his shooting percentages have gotten lower than a maximum depth submarine in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.

At this point, Maniscalco has done enough, it’s time to just shut him down for the final five games. You’ve had a great college career, time to call it a night.

Moving forward- has a high-major university ever seen anything like this before? Losing both coaches in the same season- that’s unprecedented right? Has it even been done on the mid-major level- even that’s got to be rare? What about falling so fast in midseason: from stellar to awful overnight, producing a net result of mediocrity in mere weeks? And to have it happen twice in the same year?

It all seems surreal, and I’m sure the rest of Illini Nation would agree. Happening twice makes for such a rich story, one can only think of the literary classics.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

 Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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    Paul M. Banks

    Fulbright scholar in media studies, MBA, small media business owner, Published author, Founder of The Sports Bank.net, a Fox Sports affiliate Member: Society of Professional Journalists, Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Former political writer for Washington Times.com, NBC Chicago.com and numerous business journals Credentialed for: United Nations, Rose Bowl, BCS National Championship, Final Four, Stanley Cup Finals, and NBA Playoffs. Been featured on: Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports Live, The History Channel, CBS and ESPN radio. Does weekly segments for NBC and Fox Sports Radio stations across the nation.

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