Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Those words have great application around what took place for the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball program over the last few years. After all, we saw Illinois do some serious damage against its non-conference schedules the last few years, only to be burned by reality of the rough and tumble Big Ten.
When the chips were in the middle, the Illini were more a product of mediocre non-conference competition than actual contender in the best basketball conference in the country.
Last season this team won its first seven games, and 10 of its first 12 (including a win over No. 23 Missouri). That led to many believing the Illini could compete for an NCAA berth at worst in the Big Ten.
Instead, the Illini finished the year ranked next-to-last among Big Ten teams in scoring average (64.2), field-goal shooting (41.1 percent) and three-point shooting (31.7), and that led to 7-11 conference record and a berth in the NIT.
It wasn’t a blip on the radar in the John Groce era either, as it was a familiar situation to his first season at the helm of the program.
Two years ago, in Groce’s first season the Illini went 12-0 to start the season, before losing to rival No. 12 Missouri. Illinois would go on to open up Big Ten play with a loss at Purdue and win against then-No. 8 Ohio State. That would be the final win against a ranked opponent, as the Illini went all tailspin and finished with an 8-10 conference record and backed in to an NCAA tournament appearance.
Point being, both seasons ended completely different from the perception of the Illini gave off in non-conference play.
However, all of that appears to be on its way to changing. On Friday, Illinois knocked off Austin Peay 107-66, scoring 100 points in back-to-back wins, tying a school record for most made three-pointers in two games (29) and shooting 54.7 percent from deep in the process.
The players apparently are having more fun, including senior center Nnanna Egwu. He’s one of the players who has been the most inconsistent over the last few years.
“This is a fun team, to be honest, to play with,” said Egwu, following the win on Friday night. “Sometimes I wish I could just sit back and watch them.”
What is perhaps the biggest difference is this team is doing its scoring in bunches by different players. Against Austin Peay, Egwu was one of five players in double figures, scoring 13 points himself.
The Illini have five players averaging double figures through three games this season. Potential star Rayvonte Rice leads the way (18ppg), followed by Malcolm Hill (13.3), Ahmad Starks (13.3), Aaron Cosby (13.0) and Leron Black (10.7).
Impressive numbers, especially for a team that struggled to score points and shoot the ball well last season. There’s little doubt the potential to be great is there, but many in the media have already bought in.
Call me a jaded sports writer or call me someone who had bought in one too many times, but I’m not buying what this team is selling me just yet. It’s one thing to fix scoring issues against the likes of Coppin State and Austin Peay, who combined to go 24-38 last season, at home. It’s another thing to do it in the Kohl Center, Breslin Center or Value City Arena.
Until this team can beat more than one ranked Big Ten team on the road, this team still will have questions needed to be answered. Only, this Illini team may be much more fun to watch no matter what is happening in the win or loss column.