With a new head coach and picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll, Illinois likely would have signed up for a season that ended just five points short of a Sweet 16 appearance back in October.
But that does nothing soothe the pain of the Fighting Illini (23-13) in the aftermath of their 63-59 loss to 2-seed Miami, a game that was there for the taking thanks to Illinois’ perimeter defense and work on the offensive glass.
A team that lacked interior muscle all season long managed to grab 16 offensive rebounds, outscoring the Hurricanes 21-8 in second-chance points and finishing the game with a 38-35 rebounding advantage. However Miami guard Rion Brown scored 21 points off the bench, and key free throws down the stretch sealed the deal for the Hurricanes (29-6).
Brandon Paul scored 18 points (8-of-20 FG) to lead Illinois, but fellow senior D.J. Richardson had one of the roughest nights in his four-year career. Richardson, averaging 12.5 points per game entering Sunday, scored five points on 1-of-11 shooting. Even with Larkin (17 points, 5-of-12 FG) and Scott (six points, 2-of-8 FG) struggling for Miami, Illinois needed both of their senior guards to perform well if they were to win.
That didn’t happen, leaving the door open not only for an “unsung” hero such as Brown but also a dubious out-of-bounds call in the game’s final minute.
But even with the loss and the pending loss of four seniors from the rotation (Paul, Richardson, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin) there are positives to be taken from Illinois’ performance with an eye towards the future. One positive was the play of Nnanna Egwu, who tallied the first double-double of his career with 12 points and 12 rebounds and will figure prominently in Illinois’ plans going forward.
The first season of the John Groce era is one Illinois can build upon, but the immediate thoughts will be about what could have been.