Loren Tate: Familiar pattern for Illini?
Call me a cockeyed optimist — I know, I know — but the last time Illinois hit bottom in Big Ten basketball, a 3-13 finish in 1999 kicked off the UI’s best modern run of championships.
After a solid campaign in 2000, Lon Kruger handed a set lineup to Bill Self, and the Illini came within a half-second of winning or sharing six consecutive Big Ten titles.
That’s right. Six straight. Have you forgotten?
— Kruger leftovers Cory Bradford, Brian Cook, Sergio McClain and Frank Williams served as the nucleus for Self’s championships in 2001 and 2002.
— A year later on March 5, with the 1-2 teams clashing in Wisconsin, Devin Harris made a free throw at :00.4 to give the Badgers a 60-59 win and the title.
— The UI’s Dee-Deron teams rolled to clear-cut crowns in 2004 and 2005, the latter team winning its first 15 Big Ten games.
— Rich McBride’s last-ditch trey — which originally appeared good — was on review ruled a tenth of a second too late, and a 66-65 loss to Penn State ultimately left the Illini a game behind 2006 champion Ohio State.
Count ’em up. Four-tenths and one-tenth computes to a half-second, and that’s how close Illinois came to winning six straight conference crowns.
Since 2006, the closest they came was a shared runner-up at 11-7 in 2009, but a full four games behind Michigan State.
There are major differences between 1999 and 2014.
Looking back to 1998, Kruger got medical redshirt Jerry Hester for a fifth season, inserted former walk-on Brian Johnson and pieced together five seniors for a 13-3 record that shared the title with Michigan State.
That was the good news. The bad news: (1) DePaul arose as a sudden attraction, and Kruger couldn’t break into the greatest Chicagoland class in 1998 and (2) the Illini were so young and shaky in 1999 that Kruger lifted the redshirt off freshman Damir Krupalija after the eighth game, a 53-48 defeat of Bradley in Chicago.
And get this. First, be seated. This is unreal. Counting the conference tournament, 19 of the UI’s last 23 opponents in 1999 were ranked in the Top 25 ... and the Illini defeated three of them in Chicago — No. 23 Minnesota, No. 17 Indiana and No. 11 Ohio State — before bowing to No. 2 Michigan State.
So even as Fenwick’s Corey Maggette matriculated for a year at Duke, Farragut’s Michael Wright chose Arizona, and the Public League trio of Lance Williams, Bobby Simmons and Quentin Richardson enrolled at DePaul, there were alternatives. First and foremost, downstate was producing ... particularly Peoria. Kruger’s only problem in the late ’90s was waiting for everyone to become eligible. Bradford sat out a year and became the league’s most consistent three-point shooter. The point and center positions had stars in waiting, future Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Williams spending a year to be cleared, and big Marcus Griffin attending junior college before rejoining Manual teammates Williams and McClain.
You could see the clouds of 1999 parting as the new century dawned.
So in Kruger’s last season and Self’s first, Illinois moved back up the charts with a basic two-year lineup of Williams, Griffin, McClain, Cook (Lincoln) and Bradford (Memphis), and with Maine West’s Lucas Johnson as the main Chicagoland contributor.
DePaul’s emergence deserves mention here because Pat Kennedy’s recruiting was so remarkable and, by contrast, the production so strikingly weak.
Some still describe this as a DePaul renaissance. To be sure, the Demons drew a lot of media attention and TV coverage.
Years later, 1998 prep Player of the Year Richardson described his decision to join Simmons and Lance Williams as “kind of like LeBron (James), D-Wade (Dwyane Wade) and Chris Bosh teaming up in Miami.”
Really? Well, it’s true that DePaul went from 7-23 to 18-13 when they were freshmen, but they reached the NCAA just once (in 2000) and lost in the first round before then-sophomore Richardson turned pro. Simmons stayed another year and spent a decade in the NBA.
So all the DePaul renaissance brought was excitement, disappointment and an investigation of multiple rumors (nothing was uncovered). Kennedy was gone after five seasons. DePaul joined the Big East in 2006 and has produced a 29-122 record in that conference.
Said Richardson later: “I’m not going to lie. My college choice was all about the NBA. Where could I go that would be the quickest route to the NBA?”
In today’s world, Richardson’s approach is mimicked by virtually all the top stars. Illinois got close on Curie senior Cliff Alexander, but he saw Kansas as the best step for his one-and-done plan.
And when Quentin Snider decommitted in favor of hometown Louisville, UI coach John Groce was left searching for the two main ingredients for success: a dominant center and a playmaking point guard.
That’s part of the difference between 1999 and 2014. There are others:
— Despite a difficult 2014 season, Groce is appropriately pleased with the effort and team chemistry ... a far cry from the internal problems that felled the Bruce Weber regime as issues arose with Jamar Smith, Shaun Pruitt and Jereme Richmond, not to mention the shaky relationship between the coach and star guard Demetri McCamey.
— The foundation in 1998 was more solid. Illinois had won a championship in 1998, and Lou Henson’s 7-11 windup in 1996 was only the second Illini team since 1981 to finish .500 or worse in the conference. The Illini recently have won just 38 of their last 90 games against Big Ten opponents.
— With Peoria in a slump, the mid-state region is not producing quality players as when Manual and Central were winning championships.
— Chicago is still a tough nut to crack, as it was for Kruger ... who once told me, without fully explaining, why Illinois couldn’t get in the running for a certain Chicago star. It was never clear whether he was referring to academics or something else. I took it to mean both.
— Transfers have become a way of life in 2014. Just since Groce arrived, the Illini have joined that circus with six transfers to fill gaping holes. We must wait to see if Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul can make an impact similar to Rayvonte Rice.
— One year ago, the Big Ten was the nation’s best basketball conference and has only recently slipped from that pinnacle. It is the same rocky hill to climb that it was in 2000, even as Rutgers and Maryland make somewhat-questionable entries.
Is Illinois on the verge of another basketball revival? For me, the question is too complex to answer. Forced to the wall, I would anticipate steady growth but nothing quite as dramatic as the early 2000s. After all, that was an extraordinary run of Big Ten titles.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.