All right, Illinois Fighting Illini fans, I’ve got something to get off my chest. Since those Wisconsin Badgers ambushed our beloved Illini in Wednesday night’s first half there seems to be a negative sentiment about this particular loss permeating through some in the fan base.
Here’s the thing about this loss – it only counts as 1. This isn’t football where 1 loss knocks your favorite team out of the national championship picture. It is college basketball, and it’s filled with ups and downs, especially when talking about a team that’s short on experienced roster depth.
The game against the Badgers was important, no doubt, but it was important because it was a measuring stick to determine exactly where Illinois’ development currently resides at this particular point in the season. Nothing more, nothing less.
March matters. Tournament games matter. Games like this only truly matter when you harbor thoughts of winning an outright regular season conference title, and let’s be honest for a second. Did anyone truly believe that a patchwork team that is short-handed on upper classman depth would suddenly turn into a juggernaut and run roughshod through the best conference in all of college basketball?
They haven’t “arrived” because they completely dismantled the Auburn Tigers on a neutral floor, and they haven’t “arrived” because they finally found their way back to the AP Top 25. On the flip side of that coin is the fact that they aren’t as horrible as they played in the first half against the Badgers, or as poor as they looked when they tried, and failed, to close out the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.
So, what have we learned about this specific group of Illinois Fighting Illini cagers?
They are a group of kids trying to figure out exactly what they need to do to play at a consistent level every time they take the floor. Quite simply, they haven’t figured out with definitive certainty what that means yet. They have shown flashes, but they haven’t locked in to what their identity truly seems to be at this point. They may have a vision of what they can be, but they have yet to impose their identity on every single minute of every single game.
We have also found out that Illinois still has a long way to go to understand what it takes to be a Big Ten Regular Season Championship level squad, but that doesn’t mean it can’t, or won’t, happen. The bulk of the Big Ten schedule remains, and if nothing else, these Illini have shown that they are full of fight. Will that fight translate into victories? Only time will tell.
From where I sit, the rest of the season looks very intriguing, and I can’t wait to enjoy the ride. It’s bound to have peaks and valleys as these Illini navigate the Big Ten, but here’s hoping the peaks occur much more often than the valleys, and the Illini find themselves dancing when March arrives because in the end that’s what truly matters.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.