Let's be honest. 2013-2014 will not be a year that most Illinois fans remember fondly. Expectations were mixed coming into the season and though the team got off to a pretty hot start, the Illini's utter collapse in Big Ten play doomed any hope of the NCAA Tournament and a shot at doing something special.
However, despite a lackluster season, the Illini did make the postseason (NIT) and did have some moments that fans will remember for years to come. This was a team that lost a lot coming into the season and fought to find their identity over the course of the year. Players like Rayvonte Rice offered brights posts and Kendrick Nunn could have been playing the best of any Big Ten freshman when the season ended. No matter the record, there were positives to take from the year.
The best games of Illinois basketball in 2013-2014:
3. Illinois vs. Michigan (Big Ten Tournament) - Michigan 64-63
For most Illinois fans, this is not a game that they exactly want to remember. Regardless of what the perception may be now, if Illinois had beaten Michigan in this game, they had a solid shot at NCAA Tournament eligibility, especially if they could have beaten Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals. Of course, the Illini fell just short at the end of the game, but this was one of the most thrilling games of the year not only for Illinois and Michigan fans, but for the entire conference. Not only was Illinois battling for an NCAA Tournament bid, but Michigan was also battling for a #1 seed and the Illini were looking for revenge after getting beat soundly at home. Illinois fans will never talk fondly about this game, but the truth is that it was easily one of the most entertaining games Illinois played all year. Also, considering that they were doing this against the Big Ten champions added extra excitement.
2. Indiana at Illinois - Illinois 83-80 OT
Don't worry Illinois fans, you can breathe a sigh of relief. We won't be discussing anymore painful memories in today's post. This game was a great one for multiple reasons. First, Illinois won it in a close overtime battle that easily could have went either way. When a game goes to overtime, it's almost always pretty entertaining. The other part of this is that the context has to be taken into account when evaluating this game. Neither team ended up making the NCAA Tournament, but at the time, we were discussing both as solid NCAA Tournament teams that might even get into the Big Ten title race. Most figured this would be a big indicator of which team could get into the conference race and earn a good NCAA Tournament bid. The final thing that made this great is that many regard this as Rayvonte Rice's "coming out" party as he scored 29 against a solid Indiana defense. Rice also hit two free throws in overtime to seal the deal.
1. Illinois at Michigan State - Illinois 53-46
If you talk to 10 Illinois fans, it's hard to see even one taking any other game as the highlight of the 2013-2014 season. This game was not only great because it featured a massive upset on the road, but it was really the one that got Illinois back on the map for NCAA Tournament consideration. Obviously, things did not work out in that regard, but on that Saturday afternoon, things just went perfectly. This was easily the most impressive win that Illinois had over the course of the entire season and the fact that they did it on the road in the Breslin Center says a lot about how much John Groce got this team to grow in 2013-2014. The season may not have worked out for the best, but there's no doubt that when Illinois beat MSU on March 1st, the nation was on red alert for Illinois basketball.