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Sports editor Matt Daniels' top college stories of 2022:
1. Football is back
The unexpected rise of Illinois football this fall caught many off guard. Maybe the only ones who believed Bret Bielema could turn the Illini into a winner in his second season were the players, coaches and staff members inside the Smith Center. But Illinois rattled off six straight wins from mid-September through late October, jumping into The Associated Press Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2011 and entertaining realistic hope of a possible spot in the Big Ten championship game. Alas, the Illini sustained a three-game losing streak in November to ultimately derail the possibility of even more accomplishments. The 8-4 record Illinois posted, though, guaranteed the program its first winning regular season since 2007 and got the Illini a spot in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2, their first bowl game in January since the 2008 Rose Bowl.
2. Big Ten champs
A court storming ensued inside State Farm Center the night of March 6, approximately two months after former Illini Ayo Dosunmu returned to the storied building to watch his jersey banner be hoisted into the rafters. Thanks to an unlikely win by Nebraska at Wisconsin earlier on this particular Sunday, it shaped up to be a memorable night for Illini men’s basketball and its fans. Thanks to a 74-72 win against Iowa, Brad Underwood‘s Illini were able to claim a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship with Wisconsin. It marked the program’s first Big Ten regular-season championship since 2005 and capped a 15-5 league record for the Illini that included three separate winning streaks of six games, four games and three games during league play.
3. March stumbles
The win against Iowa was followed by sufficient postseason frustration for Underwood’s crew. Illinois first dropped its Big Ten tournament opener, in the quarterfinal round, by a 65-63 margin versus Indiana. The Illini’s collective 2021-22 resume garnered them a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, plus a trip to Pittsburgh to begin the event. Things never were smooth for Illinois at PPG Paints Arena, as the Illini needed a pair of free throws by Alfonso Plummer with 12 seconds left in regulation to outlast 13th-seeded Chattanooga in the first round before being dumped by fifth-seeded Houston in the second round, 68-53. That deflating setback versus the Cougars included the final moments of Kofi Cockburn‘s Illini playing career, with the big man posting 19 points and eight rebounds. He declared for the NBA draft the following month.
4. They’re among the best
It’s not especially easy to garner an All-America honor in any collegiate sport, but a few Illini managed to pull it off this year. Oakwood product Jon Davis placed sixth in the men’s 1,500-meter run at June’s NCAA Outdoor Championships. Later that month, he ranked second in the same race at the USA Championships. Olivia Howell was a second-team All-American via a ninth-place effort in the women’s 1,500 run at the outdoor finals. Ashton Anaya and Hamish Carter led men’s gymnastics to a sixth-place NCAA finals team finish by becoming All-Americans in still rings and all-around, respectively. And Lucas Byrd placed fifth at 133 pounds in the NCAA championships for second consecutive All-America honor.
5. Goodbyes and hellos
The aforementioned sixth-place national finish by the men’s gymnastics program served as the final salvo for Justin Spring in charge of the team. He announced in June that he was moving on to the Alabama women’s staff after 12 largely successful seasons overseeing his alma mater’s men’s squad. Also departing as Illini coaches were Nancy Fahey (women’s basketball), Mike Turk (track and field/cross-country) and Sue Novitsky (women’s swimming and diving). Replacing each of these four was Daniel Ribeiro, Shauna Green (more on her later), Petros Kyprianou and Jeana Fuccillo Kempe. Illinois also, for the time being, bid farewell to the idea of Division I hockey on campus. Athletic director Josh Whitman announced in May that “five years of extensive evaluation” led to the conclusion that D-I men’s hockey is “not viable ... at this time.”
6. The Chase is on
Chase Brown put together a strong third season with Illinois football in 2021, rushing for 1,005 yards and receiving All-Big Ten third-team recognition. But Illini fans hadn’t seen anything yet. Brown forged a 2022 campaign that had people bring up his name in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Seriously. He ultimately became the first-ever Illinois finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s top running back. He also was a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award, presented to the nation’s best all-around player. Brown earned All-America honors from nine different outlets after carrying the ball 328 times for 1,643 yards and 10 touchdowns. He accumulated more than 100 yards in 10 of Illinois’ first 12 games, etching himself in the Illini record book as the first to do quite a few things from his position.
7. Creating instant buzz
Considering the struggles Illinois women’s basketball has gone through over the last several seasons — the program hasn’t turned in a winning record since 2012-13 — Green being hired away from Dayton in March didn’t have many folks assuming an instant turnaround was in order. But Green and her first crop of Illini athletes clearly had other ideas. They’ll carry a 12-2 record into the calendar year 2023, using a potent offense to overwhelm a majority of their opponents so far. Some early highlights include a 92-71 win over Pitt, hanging tough with then-No. 5 Indiana before dropping a 65-61 decision, battling past Missouri 76-66 in Braggin’ Rights, and junior guard Genesis Bryant recording just the third triple-double in team history with her 22 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists during a 81-46 romp past Florida Atlantic. A first NCAA tournament appearance since 2003 seems a very real possibility for Green’s team.
8. Change of scenery
While Cockburn’s eventual departure from Illinois men’s basketball to the professional ranks was forecasted, Andre Curbelo‘s exit from the Illini was a far messier story. The point guard suffered a concussion at the end of the team’s 2021-22 exhibition schedule and went in and out of the lineup as he dealt with the injury’s after-effects, plus a positive COVID-19 test at one stage. Curbelo’s statistics dipped from those that made him Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year in the previous season, and he decided in late March that it was time for a change. Curbelo’s tenure in the transfer portal didn’t last too long, as he linked up with St. John’s in mid-April. He’s the Red Storm’s third-leading scorer, and the team boasts an 11-3 record entering 2023. Curbelo gave Illini fans some great memories, but his leaving left a sour taste in those same fans’ mouths.
9. Building boom
One hallmark of Whitman’s time as AD, which will reach its seventh anniversary this coming February, is Illinois expanding its on-campus footprint in the athletic facilities department. A renovated Ubben Basketball Complex was debuted in October, coming with a $40 million bill and growth from 40,000 square feet to 78,000 square feet. “We didn’t have anything sexy in terms of facilities in comparison to the people we were recruiting against,” Underwood said two months ago. “Now, it’s pretty good. Good luck beating us.” The Atkins Golf Club course opened to the public in June, with its completion already aiding the Illini’s two golf teams. Baseball and softball indoor practice facilities also were completed this year, and plans for a new wrestling facility were announced, as well.
10. Good times at Parkland College
Cobras athletics had plenty to be excited about throughout the year 2022, with the Champaign junior college once again earning plenty of accolades across multiple sports. Coach Cliff Hastings‘ volleyball team placed third in the NJCAA Division II national tournament, marking the 11th consecutive season in which those Cobras have placed top-four nationally. Parkland men’s basketball placed seventh in its national tournament before longtime head coach and Centennial graduate Anthony Figueroa took the head gig at Division III North Central College in May. The men’s golf squad ranked fourth in its national tournament, led by a seventh-place individual effort from Dain Richie. The women’s basketball program is off to an 11-1 start this season, too. And, on a related note, Danville Area Community College softball won two games in its national tournament.