I don’t miss Illinois basketball games. You can ask my wife or my family, when Illinois basketball is playing my life pretty much is put on pause. I don’t answer my phone and I don’t go out and socialize to try and “watch” the game. If people in the house want to talk loudly or try to engage me in conversation, they are normally shooshed or told to wait. For two hours, whenever Illinois basketball plays a game, I am completely locked in. It has been this way ever since I was a young man growing up watching the Flyin’ Illini.
As a twelve year old boy living in Southern Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, I remember practicing my turnaround jumpshot from long range for hours. I think every Illinois kid in 1989 wanted to be able to do what Nick Anderson did at Indiana to cement a #1 seed and a legacy. That team is probably one of the greatest to not win a title in NCAA history. Had they not lost Kendall Gill to injury, they would have undoubtedly won the Big Ten. They only lost one game all year with him in the lineup, and that was to a Michigan team in the Final Four that they had beaten twice by double figures in the regular season. I remember crying to myself after that game. Everyone knew they were the best team in the country that year, but they couldn’t secure one defensive rebound and it cost them a shot at the title.
However, as a young man, all I knew of Illinois basketball was success. I expected this sort of team and dominance to last forever. I had known about the prior postseason letdowns against Villanova, where they couldn’t make free throws. I remembered the embarrassing loss to Austin Peay, but the 1989 team seemed to set the stage for years of continued success. Illinois was consistently locking down big time talent. However, the following season was very good, but ended in typical fashion with an early exit from the NCAA tournament thanks to a first round upset. What seemed like a building dynasty slowly eroded as the program was put on probation, and Lou Henson could never recapture the success of the 80’s during six seasons in the 90’s in which the program made the tournament 4 times, but never advanced past the first weekend.
With the program falling back towards mediocrity, Henson retired and Lon Kruger took over. He immediatly rejuvinated the program and returned them back to national prominence, making three tournaments in his four seasons, finishing in the top 25 of the national rankings in each of those three seasons. Things seemed to return to normalcy, as he managed to capture a Big Ten title during one of those seasons as well. Everyone was shocked when he bolted for the NBA with a loaded roster returning. As an Illinois fan that is used to having their heart ripped out, we feared the program might fall back towards mediocrity, but it didn’t seem likely with the recent success, returning talent, and the teams of the 80’s still fresh in the minds of many people.
Illinois replaced Kruger with a young coach by the name of Bill Self. He came in after a big NCAA tournament run with Tulsa, and he had success at Oral Roberts prior to that, but it was still a bit uncertain where the program would go under his direction. Well, it probably doesn’t take a genius to realize how good of a recruiter and coach Bill Self turned out to be. Under his direction, the program seemed to vault itself back into the glory days of my youth. Despite only coaching at the school for three years, he won two conference championships and a conference tournament championship. In his first season, Illinois earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight. The following season they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and just missed out on advancing to the Elite Eight again. This seemed normal. This is what Illinois basketball should be. The following season, despite a lot of new players joining the rotation, Illinois earned a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even though they were defeated in the second round, sustained success had returned and didn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Then, as we had become accustomed to, the Illinois basketball fan base got a gut punch when Bill Self took over the vacated coaching position at Kansas. He said it was his dream job and that he left because he felt that he had a better chance at competing for national championships at Kansas. Yes, Kansas had the long line of basketball tradition, but Illinois had earned 2 #1 seeds in the past 14 seasons, and Self was having no problem landing top recruits. He had molded and shaped Frank Williams into the Big Ten Player of the year and a first round draft pick, the same with Brian Cook. He recruited Dee Brown who would go on to be Big Ten Player of the Year, and Deron Williams and Luther Head, who would both be first round NBA draft picks. How much better could the Kansas job be?
For Illinois fans, there was nothing better than seeing him flounder in the NCAA tournament his first few seasons while our own program continued to flourish. Illinois brought in Bruce Weber who had served for years under Gene Keady and had built a Missouri Valley powerhouse at Southern Illinois. He had a shaky start with the players who were deeply hurt the following season by Self’s departure, but he managed to right the ship and guide Illinois to a conference championship in his first season. It was the programs third Big Ten championship in four years, and things showed no signs of slowing down as they advanced to a Sweet Sixteen. The following season was the magical 04-05 team, that won a fourth conference championship in five seasons, a conference tournament championship, and made it all the way to the national championship game in my hometown of St. Louis.
I had been able to attend the national semifinal game against Louisville, which to this day is one of the greatest days of my entire life. I watched the national championship game at a friend’s house with my wife. I watched as Sean May bullied his way to the free throw line and Illinois came up one three pointer short of capping the dream season. There were no tears that night. That’s the difference between a 12 year old and a 28 year old that was expecting his second child in a few months, but as we were driving home I remember telling my wife that I was heartbroken because I didn’t know if Illinois would be able to climb that mountain again. I told her that North Carolina would be back and likely win more titles under Roy Williams because…well, they’re North Carolina and he was Roy Williams. Despite everything that Illinois had going for them, I had this horrible feeling that they had reached their pinnacle.
The following season started off on an incredible note. Illinois went to North Carolina and won in Chapel Hill. The team roared out to a 15-0 start and climbed to #6 in the polls. They had gone an unthinkable 52-2 since the start of the 2004-05 season, but then the forces of reality began to take their toll. Illinois lost their first game of the Big Ten Tournament that season, the first time they hadn’t reached the conference tournament semifinals in six years. They cruised to an opening round win in the NCAA tournament as a #4 seed, but let a late lead slip away as they were upset in the second round by Washington. While I had felt that they had reached the summit and fallen just short the year before, I had no idea just how far the fall was going to go and how long it was going to last.
It didn’t take long for Illinois fans to realize that Bruce Weber might have been a good coach, but he didn’t have the recruiting accumen to keep Illinois in the national spotlight for the long haul. Weber refused to adapt to modern recruiting tactics and offer high level prospects early on in the process, so Illinois often found itself chasing high level in-state prospects. Instead, Weber relied on the old school tactics that worked well for Gene Keady at Purdue. Bring in good players and then work to develop them into really good players over the course of their time in the program. While that formula was successful in the 80’s where players weren’t looking to quickly jump to the NBA and for programs in the Missouri Valley, that’s not how you compete in today’s Power Five programs and with fans that expect you to be at or near the top of the league every year. Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Tom Crean, Bo Ryan, and Matt Painter all had their programs flying high and right past Illinois. Yes, the recruiting services often times miss on some really good players, but they make money hand over fist because they are generally very good at what they do in terms of identifying top talent. It wasn’t hard for fans to see in the recruiting rankings or on the court that Bruce Weber was falling behind other Big Ten programs.
While Illinois was still getting good players, they couldn’t string together consistent recruiting classes or the necessary pieces to be consistently good teams year in and year out. After the 05-06 season that saw Illinois rise as high as #6 in the polls and finish with a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament, Illinois only made three NCAA appearances in Weber’s final six seasons, winning only one tournament game and never ending the season in the national rankings. Illinois’ best conference record after the 05-06 season under Weber was 11-7, and they only reached double digit conference wins one other time. The man who had been given the keys to a program with national championship level talent had run the program into territory that Illinois fans hadn’t known for almost 30 years.
After the 2011-12 season, Illinois fans were disgruntled, but we all felt like the early 2000’s and 2005 were still at the front of the minds of potential coaches and recruits. Illinois fans still believed this was an elite program and a top ten destination for coaches and players. It didn’t seem like it would be that difficult to sell high level coaches to come to Illinois. Just a few years ago they were coming off a national championship appearance and had won the conference four out of five years. It felt like getting Brad Stevens to leave Butler for a place where he would have access to great facilities and a bigger recruiting budget would be a foregone conclusion, but when he turned them down people had little doubt that Shaka Smart would jump at the opportunity, but he didn’t want the job either. Suddenly, Illinois whiffed on their first two choices. Two up and coming coaches at the time that had experienced high level, national succes, both said no to a program with rich history and somewhat recent success. Now Illinois had a well publicized vacancy and an athletic director that was in over his head. Illinois pivoted to John Groce, who had just taken Ohio University to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating North Carolina. He was part of Thad Matta’s staffs that had brought in the elite talent to that program, but Illinois fans were disappointed. Groce had led Ohio to two NCAA appearances in his four years at the school, but for a program that was seeking a return to national relevance, this hire seemed to be a bit of a stretch.
During his inagural season, Groce produced some big time wins and moments, including a win at Gonzaga and defeating #1 Indiana and climbing as high to #10 in the polls at one point early in the season. After a nightmarish start to conference play when the season started to feel lost, the team rallied and earned an NCAA birth. They came within a missed jumper of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, and if you’re wondering why officials can now review all calls where possession is in dispute in the last two minutes of a game, you can thank Illinois getting screwed for that. Just like no other team has to worry about playing a true road game in the NCAA tournament, thanks to Illinois getting screwed in 1984.
As Illinois fans, we’re always waiting for something to go against us. As a Purdue alum, I think both fan bases can relate when it comes to agonizing basketball stories and almosts. When I was at Purdue, we earned a #1 seed, but couldn’t advance past the second round. Heck, we narrowly missed becoming the first #1 seed to get beat by a #16 seed, thanks Virginia. However, things came full circle as Purdue had their Elite Eight contest won, except for a miracle offensive rebound tap out and 30+ foot shot going in at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, and Virginia eventually onto a national championship. However, if you asked Illinois fans in 2019, they would have given anything to trade places with Purdue fans.
For Illinois, the 2018-19 season marked the sixth straight season without making an NCAA tournament appearance. In fact, despite winning seven games in the conference and knocking off a few top 25 opponents, that Illinois team would set the school’s all time record for most losses in a season. Despite seeing Brad Underwood slowly upgrading the talent, it felt like Illinois would still be years away from having their hearts potentially ripped out in March, or even experiencing exciting moments in March. Bruce Weber had deflated the Illinois program, and John Groce ran it into the ground. Groce seemed like a capable coach, but his staff had zero recruiting ties and juice, which was desparately needed to turn things around.
When Brad Underwood was hired, he came in saying all of the right things. Illinois was his dream job, so unlike Kruger and Self, if he did win, Illinois fans wouldn’t have to worry about him jumping to greener pastures. Like Self, Underwood came in with really high success at a smaller school, and he had just come off a really successful season at Oklahoma St. He brought in a frantic style of play, that while Illinois lacked the talent to win many games, at least was an exciting brand of basketball to watch. For all of my Purdue friends and fellow alumni that gave me grief about still being a die hard Illinois fan, I finally felt like we were about to see the playing field leveled like it was when I was at Purdue in the late 90s. And trust me, I heard about Brian Cardinal all of the time and knew his story all too well.
As a die hard Illinois fan who literally marks his calendar and plans accordingly with their schedule, these past few seasons have been so special. Not only is Illinois basketball back, but with Brad Underwood in place, it doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon. These teams and his program seem capable of reaching the 2005 summit, and possibly winning a national championship some day. It doesn’t feel like Illinois basketball, and it’s 44-16 record in the Big Ten over the past three seasons is the apex. While that record is ridiculously good, and most rational fans should understand that a slight drop might be expected if Kofi Cockburn moves on after this season, Illinois basketball is not going away. The dynasties of the 80s and early 2000’s are back. Illinois basketball has returned to the program I grew up thinking it always would be. If not for some odd rules during the Covid season of 2020-21, Illinois would be celebrating back to back regular season titles.
So what does all of this mean? For me it means that people won’t look at me like I’m crazy for watching a game on my phone at a party in November against Texas Rio-Grande Valley. Ok, well most people will still think that is really weird, but at least they’ll see the relevance. Unlike years past when I would tell people I couldn’t meet them because I wanted to watch Illinois lose to North Florida, and then later explain to people that North Florida was projected to win their conference, so it might not be considered a horrible loss as the season went on. Yeah, that’s how bad things got for Illinois basketball. Those of us that are true diehards will never forget those times, as hard as we might try.
My sons who have never lived in Illinois, but are fans because of all of the games they’ve seen me watching now understand what this program is and can be. They have only known Illinois as losers in their lifetime. My friends that I’ve grown close to over the past decade, that know me as ‘the Illinois fan’ can see the passion met with some reward. It’s rewarding not being the butt of jokes. Purdue fans laughed at Indiana fans in 2013 when Illinois beat them when they were the #1 team in the country. They said things like, “I can’t believe you guys lost to Illinois.” In my mind, it felt like Illinois basketball had fallen to the level of Northwestern in the eyes of people around the Big Ten and beyond with that kind of statement. How could little ole’ Illinois beat mightly Indiana?
The other thing that makes all of this recent success so much more special is the fact that in the Big Ten, championships matter. I only know the Midwest in my 45 years on earth, but loyalty is what defines us. We remember things that happened 20 years ago like they were yesterday. We value consistency and hard work. While I would love to see Illinois basketball make run after run in the NCAA tournament, I get more excited about winning Big Ten championships. Maybe it’s because the schools are located so close geographically, and the fans are so passionate. But it’s more likely because in the Midwest we value consistency over time. Winning a Big Ten championship means you were consistently better than your peers through a long, cold winter. Winning in the NCAA tournament is often about matchups, and one game can suddenly change the perception of an entire season. Big Ten championships are things that are discussed years later. Living in Northern Indiana, it’s darn near impossible not to go out into a sports setting and find yourself among Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan St. fans. Rivalries and championships mean something in this part of the country.
Had Nebraska not beaten Wisconsin yesterday, and Illinois still beat Iowa in a great game, it would have been exciting and fulfilling, but it would have been another year of almost with Illinois basketball. I would have gone to bed feeling good, but not elated. It would not have diminished the season, but it would have been another great team under Brad Underwood that didn’t get to have a banner raised to cement their legacy. Those banners mean something at Illinois. Even now, when I take my teenaged sons to Illinois baskeball games, I talk about those teams on those banners and the players who were on them. Now, one day I’ll get to tell my grandkids about the 2021-22 Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team when I take them to a game and we start pointing at the banners hanging from the ceiling.
As a fan, I am so happy and proud today, but I also feel relieved. I feel relieved for a guy like Brad Underwood that has worked so hard these past 5 seasons to get to this point. He understands Illinois basketball and the midwest. He wants to win national championships. He has openly talked about it this season, but he also understands the significance and legacy of winning Big Ten championships. He wants to win championships so badly for himself, his players, but also for the fans. All coaches say their fans are the greatest, but Brad Underwood has meant that with complete sincerity since he took over the job.
People doubted his methods after his first two seasons. People doubted his coaching ability after a tough loss to Loyola in the NCAA tournament last season. People doubted his ability to prepare teams and get up for non-conference rivals at the beginning of this season. Yet, through all of that he stayed true to himself and his beliefs. He wasn’t happy when his team narrowly escaped Penn St. a few days ago, but they found a way to win, something Wisconsin couldn’t avoid doing to Nebraska at home to secure an outright title. After the Penn St. game, you would have thought that Illinois might as well have surrendered the rest of the season if your were on social media.
Many of the same people praising the team and coaches today, were the same ones ridiculing them on Thursday night. Quite honestly, it’s embarrassing and why I stay off Twitter following losses or poor performances. However, it does show the passion of Illinois basketball fans. However, those aren’t the fans that were there to watch and criticze the Florida A&M and North Florida losses. While people may not look at things as analytically as I do or understand that all teams and humans have off days/nights, it is crazy how insane this fanbase can be. It’s why despite attending another Big Ten school with a highly successful basketball program for four years, my committment and loyalty to the program I grew up worshiping never waivered. Last night made all of the nights I upset my wife by checking out for two hours worth it. It made all of the times I told friends I was busy or unavailable during an Illinois basketball game worth it. All of the times I got snickered at for believing in an Illinois team that others could see was so flawed and lacking in talent, were now erased.
As we roll into the conference and NCAA tournaments, a lot of people will be out in bars watching Illinois games in large groups or with friends. Not me! I’ll be watching intently at home. Analyzing how other teams are attacking us or what we need to do to be successful on both ends of the court. I won’t overreact if things don’t go our way on foul calls, and if we don’t win the Big Ten tournament, I won’t talk about how we got outcoached or point out all of the reasons why we won’t make a Final Four. If we don’t have a long run in the NCAA tournament, I won’t call this season a waste or a missed opportunity. On March 7th, 2022, I am enjoying the feeling of seeing my favorite team crowned a 20-game conference champion and having a tremendous coach in place that is going to keep this program highly relevant for years to come. It’s a great day to be an Illini fan, and if the weather wasn’t so crappy today, I am half tempted to go outside on the basketball court in my backyard and practice my 35 foot turnaround jumpshots like I did 33 years ago.
Thank you Brad Underwood, coaches, and players. You’re champions today, and for the rest of your lives.