Altenberger: 'It's going to take time'

Altenberger: 'It's going to take time'

CHAMPAIGN — Doug Altenberger’s Illinois men’s basketball career served as a bridge between the start of the true turnaround under Lou Henson and the Flyin’ Illini era. He was on the 1984 Big Ten championship team as a sophomore, and his redshirt senior season coincided with the start of Kendall Gill and Stephen Bardo’s careers.

The 1980s were a high point for Illinois basketball, but success did not come quickly. Henson inherited an Illini team coming off two straight sub-.500 seasons. Illinois never finished higher than sixth in the Big Ten in Henson’s first five seasons and had a single NIT appearance in that span.

But Henson slowly built his program, guiding Illinois back to the NCAA tournament in 1981. Before the 1980s were out, the Illini had seven more top four Big Ten finishes and NCAA tournament appearances.

Success took a little time.

Second-year coach Brad Underwood finds himself in a similar position as Henson did in the late 1970s with a program in a rut of limited success for the last decade. Altenberger, who now serves as a radio analyst for Fighting Illini Sports Network, sees the parallels after Illinois went 14-18 in Underwood’s first season as coach and are in the thick of a complete teardown and rebuild.

“We’re back there,” Altenberger said. “It’s going to take time to get where we need to get to. We didn’t get to this spot right away. It took us a little while to get to where we are now, and it’s going to take us a while to get out of there.

“It’s going to be a tough year next year. It is. But they’re going to work hard, they’re going to compete (and) they’re going to upset some people.”

The foundation for Illinois’ turnaround under Henson was laid with an infusion of talent. Eddie Johnson and Mark Smith were seniors on the 1981 NCAA tournament team, with a backcourt of Derek Harper and Craig Tucker.

The baton was passed to the 1984 Big Ten champs, which featured freshmen Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters — Parade All-Americans as high school seniors. Then Altenberger and Ken Norman helped bridge the one-year gap between the Douglas/Winters era and the first full Flyin’ Illini season with Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle making their Illini debuts.

“I think one of the best attributes (Henson) had was he could identify great players, and he very rarely missed on great players,” Altenberger said. “He knew who could play and who couldn’t. He didn’t always get the top kids that he wanted, but he knew who he wanted really badly. I think that’s something that’s not talked about.”

Altenberger pointed to a turnaround in recruiting with Underwood as a step that has to be taken. Inroads have been made in that regard with the 2018 class featuring five-star guard Ayo Dosunmu and four-star wing Tevian Jones at the top.

“I’m old school,” Altenberger said. “I think you win with guys that you’re able to recruit in high school, develop them and teach them the system.”

Recruiting goes beyond just adding top talent. Targeted players also have to fit the system — something Altenberger notices as a difference between Underwood and former Illinois coach John Groce.

“My only criticism, John just recruited guys,” Altenberger said. “I’m not sure from a development perspective, even if he got the right name kid, did he really fit his system. That’s what I respect in Brad. Brad knows what he is, knows his system and knows who he wants.

“I think as the program starts to improve and you’re able to sell, ‘Hey, listen, we’re right there and we can get to the next level,’ the kids will commit to that. It’s identifying the proper kids to be in there early.”

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