20 for 21. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, especially in the world of sports, but when you’re successful at something 20 out of 21 times, you’re pretty special. Retire 20 out of 21 batters in a baseball game, and that pitcher is doing something that’s rarely been done before. Make 20 out of 21 free throws, and you’re considered automatic. Complete 20 out of 21 passes as a quarterback, and your team is likely well on its way to victory.
When it comes to victories, winning 20 out of 21 times is incredibly difficult. It is considered amazing and rare. Now, when you look at how teams compare and compete against their peers in college sports, it can be even more difficult to be that successful. You would expect that high level football and basketball teams should rack up wins against inferior opponents. Those teams often litter high major college schedules. It is how the smaller schools fund their athletic department and budget. They agree to make a trip to be the sacrificial lamb for the bigger and more powerful athletes that need in game reps and the ability for coaches to see their depth players in action. Your conference however, that is where teams are measured over the course of the year against their peers, and where winning becomes more difficult.
Earning 20 victories in 21 tries against teams that are in your conference is extremely difficult. So difficult that Alabama football hasn’t pulled it off in the last 3 years. Ohio State football has made it look routine in the Big Ten, but look at the number of players they have drafted compared to the other teams in the conference. Yet, those are the only two schools that come to mind when you think of that consistent dominance in a Power 5 conference in football or basketball. In basketball, the talent seems to be more evenly spread out, and the magic of the NCAA tournament is the fact that anything can, and usually does, happen in a one game format against basketball teams with talent that is relatively even. Yet, somehow, someway, the fact that Illinois basketball has won 20 of its last 21 games against Big Ten conference basketball opponents seems to be getting overlooked and taken for granted by its own fans and people around the conference.
I don’t have the time or stats research team to go back and tell me how many times this has happened for Illinois in their history of playing Big Ten basketball, but I’m willing to take a guess that you can count the times on one hand, maybe just a couple fingers. I’d be willing to bet that only a couple of programs in the Big Ten can point to any stretch in their history where their team has won 20 of 21 conference games. What makes the Big Ten so special is the depth of the conference every year. People will point to the fact that no Big Ten team has won a National Title since Michigan State in 2000, but every year the Big Ten is at the top of all conferences in number of teams making the tournament. It is not easy to win in the Big Ten, especially on the road. Factor in that the league now has a 20 game conference schedule, and it is almost certain that every conference champion is going to have at least three losses. It is extremely difficult for any team and program to have a sustained high level of success because of how many great coaches and tradition rich programs there are up and down the conference.
Illinois basketball has had some great stretches in its history, including the 2005 team that went 37-2. The teams from 2004-06 had some amazing runs and success in the conference. Talk to most Illini fans over the age of 40, and they can rattle off memories of those teams and players like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, too many Illinois fans think it was yesterday and that the program should sustain that success decade after decade without realizing just how difficult and special it is to win at that level. Hop on Twitter when Illinois is having an in-game stretch where they are struggling, and “fans” would have you think that the coaching staff is completely incompetent and the team is incapable of doing anything right. However, this recent run of Illinois basketball has to go down as one of the greatest of all time in program and conference history, and a rarity on the national level.
For comparison, the best stretch of conference success that Illinois has had in the past 70 years was from 2004-2005. During that time, Illinois basketball won a regular season conference championship and a Big Ten tournament championship. Their best stretch was a run of winning 29 of 31 games against conference foes. When you look at the Illinois program today in the middle of their magical conference run, they captured a Big Ten tournament championship and only missed out on a regular season crown because the league refused to adapt its way of determining a champion during a pandemic after Illinois won 2 more conference games and the lone head to head match against the team that was able to claim the championship.
Yet, for some reason I don’t think Illinois fans are appreciating the greatness like they should be. It is absolutely fantastic sitting down to watch a conference game and expecting your team to win every time. It must be how Ohio State and Alabama football fans feel right? But this is Illinois basketball! The program just had its first player drafted in a decade last year, and despite having the most dominant player in the game right now, doesn’t have current legit impact NBA prospects up and down its roster. They are doing this with guys that have given their heart to this program. Guys that are accepting of their roles and buying into the concept of team basketball. They are doing this with great coaching.
Winning is hard. When you don’t have next level talent that jumps out the moment you see it, winning is even more difficult. If not for a flagrant foul that broke the nose of their superstar guard last year at Michigan State, Illinois might be on a 21 game conference winning streak. However, I get the feeling that many Illinois fans think that this is how it should be. It should be easy to get the best players to come to Illinois every year, and they should always beat every opponent in front of them. Many Illinois fans think that winning 9 out of 10 conference games should be the expectation and the norm, but how many other conference programs can claim that success year after year?
On Monday, Illinois hosts Purdue for a matchup that could realistically diminish Purdue’s chances of winning a league title by the middle of January despite being ranked in the Top 10. If Illinois wins, it will be what should be expected from the team in the eyes of most fans. Young men are expected to show up with great passion and energy for every game, especially at home. The talk around this team will focus on the climb in the national rankings, conference championships, and Final Fours. However, some fans will still find a player and note how it’s inexcusable for a young man to not have the same energy and passion every night that a die hard fan in their forties does. These players shouldn’t be tired from pushing their bodies and competing for weeks and weeks. No excuses, keep winning! Illinois fans like to find the warts instead of admiring the princess.
If Illinois loses to Purdue on Monday, Twitter and the Illinois fanbase will go nuts on someone. They will talk about how this player needs to step up and how Coach Underwood is horrible in games with matchups and rotations. Illinois fans will go from talking about how this team should be a top 2 or 3 seed in the tournament to discussing the reasons why this team won’t make a deep postseason run. They will single out players for not giving enough effort on the floor or for not caring enough. In short, the sky will be falling.
The passion of Illinois basketball fans it what makes them so great. Despite not having a pipeline to the NBA, Illinois fans expect their teams to always win at a high level. It’s the fans that made this job so attractive to a coach like Brad Underwood who was willing to leave behind years of success as a head coach to undertake a significant rebuild that has helped turn around this program after a dormant decade. It’s the fans that help those coaches sell the program to young kids. It’s the fans that that help provide the energy in these big games we so desperately want to see these kids keep winning.
However, I hope that Illinois basketball fans have the perspective to see and enjoy how magical this stretch has really been. How many times has Kentucky, Kansas, or Duke basketball won 20 of 21 games against conference opponents? I would love to see that stat. This is an era of Illinois basketball that should be celebrated like those 2004 and 2005 teams were. The good news is that the current coaching staff seems to have the pieces in place and coming in to sustain success for years, but that doesn’t mean fans should expect THIS level of success. What we are seeing is special!
I hope every Illinois fan savors every second they can watching Trent Frazier in an Illini uniform. When you watch the 2-4 minutes of a game when he is not on the court, can anyone argue that Frazier, not Cockburn, is the most important player on this Illinois team right now? And speaking of Kofi Cockburn, Illinois fans have gotten spoiled watching him and taking his greatness for granted. People can argue about player of the year all they want, but I would simply ask anyone to answer this question for me, is there another player in college basketball that requires more game planning, attention, and matchup problems for a team than Cockburn? Illinois fans have been lucky enough to watch this kid play every game for 2 and a half years. If he decides to stay for another year, or two, he will shatter the career points record for the school. The NIL agreement doesn’t make that seem as ridiculous a thought as it was a couple of years ago. Yet, Illinois fans should revel every time they watch him in their uniform because it is highly likely you’ll never see someone like him again wearing the orange and blue.
I haven’t even mentioned DaMonte Williams. He will not go down in lllinois history like the other two players mentioned in terms of adoration and individual accolades, but in all 20 of those Illinois wins he has had a moment that has made you as a fan say, “Man, I’m glad he’s on our team.” While fans may criticize some other players for being reckless, not bringing enough energy, inconsistent, or soft, DaMonte Williams is as steady as the come, and ask any opponent if they want to question his toughness.
Illinois has 14 conference basketball games left this season, five of those games currently feature teams ranked in the top 16 in the country. 7 of those 14 games are on the road. It is highly likely that Illinois is going to lose 4-5 of those games, maybe more, maybe less. However this season plays out, I hope that Illinois fans can stop and take in how amazingly successful this program has been the last couple of years and how special this run really is. Don’t take some of these current players for granted, and please appreciate how well prepared these kids are when they take the court versus every opponent. Last years NCAA early exit was gut wrenching, but don’t forget we were deprived of watching an NCAA team that was peaking in 2020, likely a top 4 seed, and a team that looked just as capable of last year’s squad of making a Final Four.
20 out of 21 is special in any sport at any level, but it should be praised even more at Illinois where hard times have been more common than not this past decade. It’s hard to ask a fanbase that always assumes the worst but expects the best to have perspective, but stretches like this come around only once or twice in a lifetime. It has been a long road to get to this point, and I’m not sure how many were on this journey five years ago. Like Andy Bernard once proclaimed, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you actually left them.” Illinois basketball doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon with Coach Underwood, but I hope Illinois fans are especially enjoying this stretch and taking it all in before it’s gone.