It’s hard to shake the feeling of déjà vu in Champaign.
One year removed from a season that began with great promise before unraveling quicker than a Dee Brown first step, Illinois appears headed down a similar path. The circumstances, of course, are much different this time around—a new head coach and underdeveloped frontcourt players mark a fresh look from last year’s team—but the trajectory of the season is all too familiar.
Through the Fighting Illini’s sizzling 12-0 start, it was easy to lose sight of last year’s trend in hopes that a new one was underway. Last year’s team, which started off 10-0 and climbed to 15-3 after a statement win over Ohio State, dropped 12 of its final 14 games to fall out of the postseason picture entirely. Zip forward eight months to a new era of Illini basketball and the tale of two halves theme appears to have infiltrated the John Groce regime.
This January outfit bears little resemblance to the team that rolled Butler in Hawaii to capture the Maui Invitational title in mid-November, then waltzed into Spokane and dealt Gonzaga an 11-point blow two weeks later. The Big Ten has removed the makeup on Illinois, exposing all the unsightly details that the non-conference slate couldn’t detect.
Just as last year’s down-scaled Big Ten disassembled the Illini following a statement home win over Ohio State, college basketball’s best conference appears poised to do the same again in 2013. If last year’s squad could only finagle six conference wins in a weaker league and with a first round draft pick patrolling the post, this year’s version, minus Meyers Leonard, could struggle to match.