Tate | Repairing brand vital to UI

Tate | Repairing brand vital to UI

In the curtain raiser for Thursday's long day of basketball, Minnesota's historically inconsistent program prevailed over a collegiate blueblood, 86-76.

The blueblood designation is attached to Louisville, not because of a long-term connection to a power conference, and not because it presents the most respected operation in its own state. But rather it stems from 28 appearances — yes, 28 — in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament and three national titles (though the third in 2013 was vacated for NCAA violations), creating a fan base and income stream making the Cardinals No. 1 on the Forbes list of most valuable college basketball operations. Just ahead of Kentucky, Indiana, Duke and Kansas.

As clear as an identifying mark burned on livestock, the Louisville brand, the culture, is aglow. And remember, the brand in college basketball is whatever prospective athletes think it is. Being somewhat shady in this era of AAU basketball and FBI inquiries — in this case committing infractions that cost coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich their jobs — is not exactly a deterrent to success.

Staying relevant

It's the brand that matters. It sets the pecking order that prospective athletes follow.

Blue-chippers flock to Duke and North Carolina and Kentucky because they're recognized as stepping stones to the NBA.

Villanova, which pulled off the greatest title-game upset of Georgetown in 1985, has its own special brand reshaped around two championships under Jay Wright.

Michigan State evolved from the Magic Johnson title run into Tom Izzo's tough-love era that has come to dominate the upper Midwest. Where you find ongoing success, you see a distinct brand, whether it's the 21st century run at Wisconsin (even before Bo Ryan, the Badgers reached the Final Four under Dick Bennett in 2000), or the Rose-Keady-Painter consistency at Purdue.

And along the way, we witness the persistence of Kansas and the amazing rise of Gonzaga, and the tarnishing of once-dominant brands at UCLA and UConn and ... Illinois.

Lagging behind

Coach Brad Underwood has frequently referred to the Illini as a Top 10 program, though the program has long since fallen far out of the Top 10 in wins, and has slipped to No. 13 in the Forbes value listing ... bringing in less than half of Louisville's $52 million, this based on average three-year numbers in attendance revenue, TV income, etc., and this despite multiple scandals involving the Cardinals.

Brands and recruiting are directly related, leaving Illinois in a full-pack uphill climb. Whereas the UI once dominated the state in the lengthy runs of Harry Combes and Lou Henson, the graduation of Aaron Jordan leaves Underwood with one scholarship player north of Peoria (Morgan Park's Ayo Dosunmu) and none south of Peoria.

The UI carries a particularly dismal outlook in the talent-rich St. Louis area. Reversals by the once-signed Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett, and the transfer of Mark Smith, created a negative word-of-mouth atmosphere that foiled the four-year efforts to land Belleville West's E.J. Liddell. In selecting Ohio State, the state's top senior follows two of the greatest Buckeyes from Illinois, 2010 National Player of the Year Evan Turner from Westchester St. Joseph's and 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop of Normal.

A book could be written on the UI's complicated recruiting rejections around the Big Muddy. For every Malcolm Hill, we hark back on dozens who got away ... beginning with LaPhonso Ellis (Notre Dame) and running through the likes of Larry Hughes (St. Louis), David Lee (Florida), Bradley Beal (Florida), Jayson Tatum (Duke), Jordan Goodwin (St. Louis), Tyler Cook (Iowa) and Courtney Ramey (Texas).

It starts at home

The list of missed Chicagoans is too long to recite here, most recently an AAU dispute causing Talen Horton-Tucker to switch from Illinois to Iowa State.

Point is, while veteran UI fans may still relish the brand of 2005 when Dee, Deron and the gang frolicked, current high school stars were infants during that 37-2 run. Then-coach Bruce Weber was unable to capitalize on a string of five Big Ten championships in eight years.

Gradually, the brand flittered and dimmed — remember, the brand is what high school athletes consider it to be — with a lonely three NCAA tournament wins in 14 years. Fourteen years!

The Illini no longer rule their home market. A sixth UI coach in a quarter-century finds himself scouring the confusing transfer market, perusing both coasts, and attempting to replace the ones that got away.

It's a fur piece to a realistic Top 10. Or even crashing the upper division of a conference that, despite Indiana's underperformance, features an upper crust with working brands.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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