Illinois or Northwestern: Who Choked Worse?


bruce weber illini

By Paul M. Banks

Regarding college basketball in the state of Illinois, it is the worst of times. And it’s again the worst of times. We may get zero teams in the NCAA tournament. And it’s all over from the Wisconsin border to the edge of the state that neighbors Kentucky. SIU was on the national stage for much of the 2000s, today they’re irrelevant. DePaul has been a joke for decades. Chicago St. is quite possibly the worst team in all of Division I. Loyola and UIC bring nothing of significance to the table; ditto for all the remaining direction schools. But two schools, Illinois and Northwestern, spent a lot of time this season within field of 65 tournament bracket projections. Not so much anymore.

bill carmody

In February, both Illinois and Northwestern had a very clear map into the NCAA tournament. Both of Chicago’s Big 10 teams had a route that seemed very doable given what he already saw in their body of work. Both failed miserably, and now each will have to run the table in the big ten tournament to qualify for the big dance. Good luck with that. So whose collapse was a bigger overall letdown?

Prosecuting the Illini

Ok, so you beat Michigan State, a team that’s owned you the past three years, and win at the Kohl Center where nobody does…but then lose 5/6 down the stretch? You achieved the marquee wins needed to balance out your dreadful pre-conference losses, only to throw it all away by refusing to play offense in home losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin. bruce weber demetri mccamey

You get firmly into the tourney picture, then give up when it matters most. The home loss to Wisconsin where the inmates ran the asylum was embarrassing, but not quite as embarrassing as putting up 14 in the first half to a team that hasn’t beaten you in your building in like 30 years. Quite pathetic, but let’s not forget the Ohio St. heartbreak on Valentine’s Day. Yes, you can define a heart-breaker as a game that’s over within the first five minutes. It was the worst loss at Assembly Hall since the same year the venue hosted an Elvis Presley concert; quite heartbreaking.

Much of the blame goes on Bruce Weber, because his players folded faster than Superman on laundry day. Take the curious case of Mike Davis, who matured in reverse this season. After a breakout sophomore year, he took a giant step backwards this season. Bruce believed in mid-season that Davis didn’t practice hard enough. Take a look at Davis’ results in the biggest games the illini had to have: lots of 4-13, 3-9, 4-15 type FGM-FGA. And what makes those numbers even more pathetic is the fact those misses includes lots of bunnies, cheapies, and “high percentage shots.”

McCamey isn’t a perfect player, but he is second in the nation in assists. Maybe he’d be first if Davis could consistently finish. This team peaked on February 9th, when they were 17-8.

Prosecuting the Northwestern Wildcats

When you lose twice to Penn St. (a team that started 0-12 in Big Ten play), not to mention Indiana and Iowa, therefore completing your entire set of crunch time losses to the league’s three bottom feeders, it’s hard to imagine a collapse much worse than that. Northwestern had a scheduling quirk which might explain. A front-loaded conference schedule probably demoralized them. All the tough teams came near the start, and we reasonably  believed they could fix everything down the stretch when the cakewalk portion kicked in.bill carmody northwestern

Instead the results were devastating. Playing without their best player Kevin Coble,  NU got off to a 13-1 start somehow. It looked like the Ewing Theory was at work again. The Cats achieved their first national ranking in 40 YEARS!!! And set a new school record for single season wins. Of course, that 19 win season, the new program benchmark, comes with a qualifier.

I’ll use an example from my own life. In high school I dated both co-captains of the pom pon squad. (my status as a 6th string DB/9th string RB had benefits) but all kidding aside, that is a fact. Just like NU setting a new school record for wins is a fact. Of course, I should also tell you that both relationships with the pom pon girls ended quickly, without getting past first base with either of them. And neither one was exactly scorching hot to begin with. Back to Northwestern basketball history, and its zero total NCAA appearances, two conference titles and one NIT tournament wins. As Talking Heads once said, “facts all come with points of view.  Facts are never what they seem to be.”

Of their 19 wins this season, only one was of the signature variety: Purdue ranked #6 at the time. The Cats peaked on February 8th when they were 16-7, before going 3-5 in their final eight. Despite just one of those last 8 coming against a ranked team.

The Verdict

This Illini team ended up about as likable as Al Qaeda; or the ’04 Chicago Cubs. Following/liking this team is bad for your mental health, because they haven’t just been bipolar along the course of the season, they’re bipolar within every half of every game. Take a close look at the four meetings with their Hoosier state rivals. In the four games against Indiana and Purdue, you’ll see 8-10 minute stretches in which they looked like a Final Four team, immediately followed by 8-10 minute stretches where they would have trouble beating Chicago St.

Illinois had an advantage NU didn’t, their conference schedule was soft early on, letting them build momentum and confidence. In mid-February, it looked like they had done exactly that. Then again their signature wins came against teams missing their best player (MSU-Kalin Lucas) and second best player (Wisconsin-Jon Leuer) so maybe these wins weren’t so special.mike davis illinois

RE: Northwestern, they lost to MUCH worse competition than Illinois, and what they let slip away is worse because it meant so much more. The first NCAA tourney berth in school history would have been a magical story, attracting national media attention like the 1995 football Wildcats’ Rose Bowl run. These Cats simply choked up a hairball under that pressure. A tourney berth at NU is history, at Illinois it’s just routine.

Usually. The Illini didn’t lose as much, but letting your RPI slip way down into the 70s and 80s during March is just plain unacceptable in Champaign. And Illinois was the only mediocre-or-better team in the conference that didn’t lose a key player for key stretches of the season. Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State, Purdue: all lost their best player (or a key starter) for a few games. The Illini stayed healthy everywhere except inside their own heads. And squandered their talent, luck and resources.

The orange and blue should be used to winning in pressure games now. And Northwestern went this entire season without their best player in Kevin Coble, and still won more games than Illinois, even though NU went 2-8 on the road this season. So I have to go a bit easier on them.

Bigger collapse=Illinois!

Powered by


  1. Andy Weise says

    Given the injuries Northwestern dealt with, it’s easy: ILLINOIS.

  2. paulmbanks says

    agreed…no way Illinois loses McCamey, and goes 19-11. even with NU’s soft-ass schedule. Since people got on the Illini fans for storming the court after Mich St. saying “that’s Illinois- the program is above such things” well, they need to be above finishing 1-5 down the stretch with a tourney bid on the line, and the team is completely healthy

Speak Your Mind