Top 10 Illini stories of 2015

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner counts down the top-10 Illini stories of a tumultuous 2015

2015 was full of huge news for Illinois. Most of it just wasn't good news.

The Illinois athletic program went through huge changes in 2015, a process that will continue into 2016 (new athletic director, likely football coaching change, etc.). And while the non-revenue sports continued their string of success, the struggles of the two revenue sports continue to dominate the conversation.

Here are the top-10 Illini sports stories of 2015.

10. Men's tennis wins B1G

Brad Dancer had big shoes to fill. Craig Tiley, a name that has come up during the Illinois athletic director search, built Illinois into a national power (culminating in a national title in 2003). So anything Dancer did, even a runner-up finish in 2007, seemed a tad inferior. But the 10th-year head coach led the Illini to his best season yet, winning a share of the conference regular season title (ending Ohio State's nine-year title streak) and their second conference tournament title in four years. A Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina spoiled what seemed like Dancer's best chance to return to the Final Four. Yet, while he lost key seniors Tim Kopinski Farris Gosea and Ross Guignon, Dancer returns a talented roster that includes Jared and Aron Hiltzik – a senior and sophomore, respectively – sophomore Aleks Vukic and talented freshmen Asher Hirsch, Pablo Landa and Pengxuan Jiang. The Illini should have a solid chance of defending their B1G crowns.

9. Men's track bounces back

Track is a sport most of us ignore for all but a few weeks every four years. But the Illini men's track program deserves our attention. Mike Turk, who was promoted from assistant coach after Wayne Angel resigned in 2009 after years of uncompetitiveness. Turk steadily raised the bar for Illini men's track at both the conference and national level. It all culminated in a dominating performance at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, when the Illini scored 145 points, 37 more than second-place Nebraska, for the Illini's first Big Ten title since 1994.

8. Groce finally lands a point guard 

Winning postseason games, not recruits, eventually need to be the biggest stories for Illinois basketball and football. Despite that and the fact that Te'Jon Lucas is not a top-100 prospect, the Milwaukee point guard's signing is quite a big deal for John Groce – because it took Groce five recruiting classes to sign a player most analysts deem a Big Ten-quality point guard. The young Lucas (he turned 16 this fall) is months to a year younger than most of his Class of 2016 peers – is different than other Illini highly-touted point guard targets (Demetrius Jackson, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Jalen Brunson, Jawun Evans and Marcus LoVett) because he went under the radar. But he blossomed on this year's July circuit. He's grown (6-foot-2), showed more athleticism and improved his already elite distributing skills. If the Milwaukee native – who will become the first Wisconsin native to play with the Illini in more than 90 years – continues to hone his shot, Groce may finally have the point guard he so sorely needs.

7. Basketball's collapse

Through mid-February, John Groce had a case for finishing in the top-three of the Big Ten Coach of the Year voting. Injuries and suspensions to key players (Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice, Darius Paul and Aaron Cosby) severely depleted his roster. But a surprising 6-3 run in the Big Ten without those players kept the Illini firmly in the NCAA Tournament discussion. But the whole narrative changed in the second half in the Big Ten regular-season finale at Purdue, which served as a de facto NCAA Tournament play-in game. The Illini took a 26-13 lead in the first half but were trounced in the final 23 minutes of a 63-58 loss. Inexplicably – players and coaches still can't explain the collapse – the Illini then no-showed in their 73-55 Big Ten Tournament opening loss against a depleted Michigan squad. They definitely no-showed to the NIT, losing at lower seed Alabama 79-58. Over their final 103 minutes, Illinois was outscored 202 to 145. Instead of being a coach of the year candidate after somehow leading a depleted squad in the tournament, Groce now has more doubters than ever.

6. Another Final Four run for golf

Mike Small's program is no longer just a Northern power. It is a national contender on the doorstep of the peak of its sport. The Illini proved that this year. They not only won their sixth Big Ten Championship under Small, but they dominated – finishing 32 strokes ahead of second-place Iowa. After advancing to their 10th NCAA Championships in the last 14 years (and eighth straight appearance), the Illini advanced to the match play finals (round of eight) for the fourth time in five seasons – and advanced to semifinal round (Final Four) for the second time in three seasons. While the Illini fell short, Small again proved that he can build champion golfers (seniors Brian Campell earned his second-straight NCAA Regional title and juniors Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry earned All-America honors). He's also now recruiting championship-ready golfers: freshman Nick Hardy won co-medalist honors at the Big Ten Championships and classmate Dylan Meyer won events. With four of his top five golfers returning and even more talent coming in, Small will again compete for a national title in 2016.

5. Investigation into women's basketball

The first of several investigations to officially start for Illinois during the spring, allegations of racism and player abuse in the women's basketball program were unfounded, according to an independent investigation by a Chicago law firm. Seven former Illini players sued the university, coach Matt Bollant and athletic director Mike Thomas seeking more than $10 million in damages. A lawsuit is still possible, but most of the fallout appears over. Bollant is still in place, but his right-hand man, assistant Mike Divilbiss – at whom most of the mistreatment allegations were directed – parted ways with the university (with a buyout and a non-disclosure agreement). While Bollant vehemently denies the allegations, he admits he allowed the program became too negative, partly due to Divilbiss' “old-school” tactics. He has spent the last seven months trying to lead the program with one voice, his – as opposed to almost a two-head coach system like he had with Divilbiss. The results looked better to start the season – Illinois started 7-1 – but Bollant's team has lost three straight since then as theynow enter Big Ten play.

4. iMar dominates

The greatest individual season in recent Illinois athletics deserves to be higher on this list, I'll admit. But the reality is that Isaiah Martinez's NCAA undefeated season was overshadowed by a historic team run and turnover in the DIA's two most important positions. Still, Martinez's achievements – he went 35-0 this season en route to winning the NCAA title at 157 ponds, becoming the first freshman since Iowa State legend Cael Sanderson to go undefeated to win the NCAA title – are amazing. He not only wins, but he wins with some flash (watch a match and you'll likely see his opponent go airborne). Following a dominant freshman season, he has set up the start of what could be a legendary career.

3. Illini baseball's record season

In most years, Illinois baseball's seasons would earn the top spot. Maybe those who want more focus on the positive will be angry that it doesn't top the list. But we can all agree that Illinois baseball gave Illinois some much-needed positive publicity in 2015. The Illini won a school record 50 games, set a Big Ten record with 27 consecutive wins and won the Big Ten regular season title outright. Illinois not only won its first NCAA Regional and advanced to its first Super Regional – it hosted both, eventually losing to runner-up Vanderbilt (which was loaded with MLB talent). Illinois swept the Big Ten awards: veteran coach Dan Hartleb won Big Ten Coach of the Year and earned a big (deserved) raise, almost doubling his salary; first baseman David Kerian won Big Ten Player of the Year; and Tyler Jay won Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and became the highest drafted Illini ever (sixth overall to the Minnesota Twins). Following the season, a school-record nine Illini were drafted. Of the top-10 attendance figures in Illini baseball history, five were set this season. Illinois baseball likely won't repeat all this success in 2016. But based on the excitement created and the recruits landed, 2015 may have an even better foundation for sustained success.

2. Dismissal of Mike Thomas

If Mike Thomas had fired Tim Beckman after the 2014 Purdue loss or even after a 6-6 campaign last year – university leaders above him did not support such a move following a bowl bid – he likely still would be running the Illinois athletic department. Instead, the university paid him $2.5 million to go away following an embarrassing 2015 year that left the DIA battered and bruised. While Thomas attempted (and succeeded in some aspects) to modernize Illinois' athletic program, he never seemed to connect with a large portion of the fan base. More importantly, his hires haven't won enough. The fallout of Thomas' dismissal will continue into 2016. Illinois leadership began discussing the possibility of firing Thomas just after Thomas dismissed Beckman but didn't pull the trigger until the final investigative report on football allegations was released in early November. That gave Illinois leadership little time to find Thomas' replacement. When they didn't land their top target by the end of the football season, the university's temporary leadership gave Bill Cubit a two-year extension following a 5-7 season (that including six losses over the final seven games). Illinois commissioned a search committee, and more recently a search firm, to find Thomas' successor. Hopefully, the powers at be select a more successful, long-term solution than it did in 2011.

1. Tim Beckman fired

The unprecedented event that started an unprecedented year at Illinois. And to think, it all started with a disgruntled player (Simon Cvijanovic) sending out disgruntled tweets on Mothers' Day. The final independent investigation condemned Beckman for a host of abusive behavior, including fostering a culture that deterred the report and treatment of injuries. The preliminary findings of the report left Mike Thomas no choice but to dismiss Beckman and put into motion the dominoes that eventually led to his own dismissal. Beckman's firing, and how it all started, will have lasting effects on Illinois – but also maybe all of college athletics. Coaches are now on notice: the line of what they can say to players and/or do to players has changed. Players all have an outlet. They all have a voice. The positives and negatives of that are still to be determined. As great as Illinois baseball and Isaiah Martinez were this season, 2015 will be remembered by most Illini fans as the year Beckman's blunders overturned the Illinois athletic program. 


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