Top 10 Illini stories of 2015-16 school year

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down the top-10 stories of a turbulent Illini sports year

The old English phrase goes "The darkest hour is just before the dawn." Illinois athletics experienced some of the darkest hours during the 2015-16 academic year.

Investigations into multiple sports created a vacuum of leadership for months. Player arrests caused further instability and embarrassment. Oh, and neither of the top three sports made the postseason. Bleak times indeed.

But new leadership brought light on the horizon. Illinois football has hope for the future. The athletics department has a leader who inspires confidence even with major decisions ahead with the basketball programs. All while the non-revenue sports continue to experience great success.

Illini Inquirer's top-10 sports stories of the 2015-16 season provide a mix of despair and hope.

10. Te'Jon Lucas commits 

On the surface, Illinois getting a commitment from a point guard not ranked in the Scout 100 isn't huge news. But given all the swings and misses John Groce had in his first four years -- Demetrius JacksonXavier Rathan-MayesQuentin SniderJalen BrunsonJawun Evans and Charlie Moore -- signing Te'Jon Lucas  was a big moment, even if it was more a moment of relief.  Lucas -- a four-star, Big Ten-quality point guard -- chose Illinois when so many others wouldn't.


9. Illini back in the NFL draft 

Producing pros is a solid barometer of a football program's health. It's difficult to have success in the Big Ten without future NFL talents. Illinois had zero draft picks in 2014 and 2015 (the Illini had a player selected in 40 of the previous 41 NFL drafts), which coincided with some pretty bleak years on the field. But the Illini broke that draft drought this year with three draft picks: Jihad Ward (2nd round, Oakland Raiders), Ted Karras (6th round, New England Patriots) and Clayton Fejedelem (7th round, Cincinnati Bengals). Running back Josh Ferguson also signed a premier undrafted free agent deal with the Indianapolis Colts and is making noise in offseason workouts. Several current Illini are on draft radars as well, including seniors Dawuane Smoot, Chunky ClementsWes Lunt, and grad transfer LB Hardy Nickerson. That's a positive sign and a good sell to recruits. Hopefully, Lovie Smith makes sure the Illini don't suffer a draft drought for a long time.

8. Chatrice White transfers

The Illini women's basketball program had so many low points during the past year: a mass exodus of players last spring, an investigation into player abuse and racism (claims determined unfounded by an independent inquiry) and a 2-16 Big Ten record. Matt Bollant looked like a home-run hire out of UW-Green Bay, but his tenure seemingly suffered a death blow this spring when former McDonald's All-American center Chatrice White chose to transfer to Florida State. White, who earned second team All-Big Ten honors after averaging 18.7 points and 9.3 rebounds last season as a sophomore, wants to experience postseason play. Due to all the turmoil, that seemed like a huge uphill battle at Illinois. Now, Bollant -- who is 19-49 during Big Ten play at Illinois, including 10-42 the last three seasons -- enters a crucial fifth season with two upperclassmen and 10 scholarship players. He's likely facing a fourth-straight season near the bottom of the Big Ten, which wouldn't bode well for his future in Champaign.

USA Today // Brett Carlesen

7. Injuries, injuries, injuries

For the most part, injuries are unavoidable in sports. Strong athletes moving at high speeds, often intersecting or colliding with one another, will cause for some disasters. But Illinois experienced far too many disasters during the last year. Men's basketball had seven players combine to miss a total of 101 games due to injury. Point guard Tracy Abrams underwent a second-straight season-ending surgery (torn Achilles) and big men Leron Black and Mike Thorne both played single-digit games due to meniscus tears. The season would have been a lot different if those three starters were healthy. Meanwhile, Illinois football lost star receiver Mikey Dudek -- he could have been the difference in Illinois gaining the one extra win needed for bowl eligibility -- and promising running back Dre Brown for the 2015 season due to ACL tears, and both suffered ACL tears again this spring. Running back Josh Ferguson also missed most of four Big Ten games with a shoulder injury. The Illini are due some healthy seasons in both sports.

Jeremy Werner

6. Paul, Nunn dismissed

As if too much losing on the court wasn't enough bad press, the Illini basketball team had too eventful of a season off the court. Four players were arrested between August and March. Three of four were found guilty. Darius Paul, who was suspended for the 2014-15 season due to a resisting arrest charge, was dismissed after an August arrest for vandalizing a car and resisting arrest during the team's European trip. He never played a game for Illinois but cost the team three years of scholarships. Leron Black is suspended for four regular-season games after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of aggravated assault. Jaylon Tate was charged with domestic battery, but the case was dropped. But classmate and close friend Kendrick Nunn, the team's second leading scorer, was dismissed after he plead guilty to assault. The Illini roster has been weakened, but more damage has been done to Groce's approval rating. His athletic director gave him a vote of confidence, but a coach who leads a program who has too many negative headlines on and off the court can only survive for so long. Groce's team needs to provide more positive headlines next year. Win and stay out of the bookings blotter.


5. Men's golf makes Final Four

Illinois golf didn't win that elusive national championship, falling in the match play semifinals to eventual national champion Oregon at the Ducks' home course. But Mike Small's program had another phenomenal season. The Illini won a school-record nine tournaments, including a fourth straight NCAA Regional title and eighth Big Ten title in nine years. They advanced to match play (final eight) at the NCAA Championships for the fifth time in six years and finished third overall, their fourth-straight top-five finish. The Illini must replace senior studs Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry, but rising juniors Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy seem ready for the next step and Small welcomes two more top-20 recruits into the fold. The best program in the Illini athletics department continues to prove itself as a national power.

courtesy GolfWeek

4. Martinez wins 2nd national title

After his father died of cancer in October, Illini wrestler Isaiah Martinez told Illini Inquirer in January, "I'm trying to be the best ever." His first collegiate loss later that month to PSU freshman Jason Nolf may have derailed the chance to be in the conversation with Iowa State great and current Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, who went 159-0 and won four consecutive national titles from 1999-2002. But after exacting revenge on Nolf to win his second straight NCAA championship at 157 pounds, Martinez (67-1 career record)  is on pace to be the best Illini wrestler ever (he already may be) and to be put into the conversation of best Illini athlete ever. Dad is proud.

USA Today // Jeff Curry

3. Beckman, Thomas fired

Mike Thomas made a huge mistake when he decided Tim Beckman was the man to lead Illinois football to better Big Ten success. Thomas eventually paid for that mistake. Beckman went 4-20 on the field during his first three seasons -- enough to earn a pink slip -- but it was his mismanagement off the field that ultimately cost him and Thomas their jobs. Beckman was fired in late August, just a week before the first game of the season, after an independent investigation found allegations of player abuse and medical mistreatment were true. Thomas then fell on the sword on November 9. Thomas seriously considered dismissing Beckman after the 2015 season (despite a bowl bid) but didn't pull the trigger, another mistake he likely regrets -- though a $2.5 million buyout eases some of that pain. Beckman's dismissal was just the start of one of the most unstable years of Illinois athletics.

USA Today // Andrew Weber

2. Josh Whitman hired

Illinois was rudderless for most of the fall and winter. Interim athletics director Paul Kowalczyk didn't appear to have much power. Try as he might, interim football coach Bill Cubit didn't offer much long-term stability for Illini football on the two-year deal given to him by UI interim leadership. Interim chancellor Barbara Wilson seemed to drag her feet in the process of finding new leadership, whether it was the prolonged decision to fire Thomas or the prolonged search for his replacement. In the end, though, Wilson seemed to find the right man. Rick George and Craig Tiley were the bigger names, but former Division III athletics director and former Illini football player Josh Whitman has quickly given Illinois what it lacked: passion, vision, intelligence and strength. In easier terms, he gives Illinois inspired leadership. Whitman is a confident leader whose demeanor and, more importantly, actions inspire confidence in a fan base that had lost confidence in its previous leadership. He has convinced many fans, players and coaches that, yes, "We will win."

1. Lovie Smith hired

Any doubts of whether Whitman was prepared for the job or truly empowered in his job were quickly dispelled. On his first official day on the job, Whitman fired Bill Cubit. Two days later, he introduced former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith as his first hire. In two decisive, bold moves, Whitman immediately put fans on alert: there's a new sheriff in town. Whitman immediately elevated expectations and confidence in Illinois football by bringing in a respected coaching commodity and investing heavily in him (Smith signed a six-year contract that will pay him at least $21 million). Season-ticket sales already have surged, and initial returns in recruiting are promising. Smith hasn't proven anything on the field yet, but he and his impressive staff give Illinois football observers (fans, donors, players, DIA staffers and recruits) much-needed hope that stability and success could be on the horizon.

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