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CHAMPAIGN — Six months ago on Tuesday, Illinois fans probably remember the feeling they had.

One of joy.

One of hope.

One of anticipation.

The possibilities were endless. And full of promise when dinnertime arrived on Sunday, March 14.

Seeing Brad Underwood, Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and the rest of the Illinois men’s basketball team cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium to celebrate a Big Ten tournament championship was refreshing.

Same with seeing a No. 1 seed flash next to the Illini’s name on Selection Sunday.

It’s arguably the highlight of the year for Illinois athletics, with the majority of 2021 in the books.

Then, the end came abruptly a week later with a dispiriting 71-58 loss to Loyola Chicago in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Disappointment ensued.

Anger, too.

Restlessness for a fan base that has become all too accustomed to dealing with the pendulum swinging down rather than up when it comes to their favorite sports teams.

But now, with the Illini football team mired in its usual fall swoon even before the calendar well, technically turns to fall, it’s OK to feel those moments of excitement again.

Josh Whitman certainly does.

“We’re all excited about basketball season,” the Illinois athletic director said Monday evening during an appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Monday Night SportsTalk,’ back at the Esquire in downtown Champaign for the first time since March 9, 2020. “I give Coach Underwood a tremendous amount of credit. The offseason was unlike I think any of us expected. When we were on the bus coming back from (the NCAA tournament) in Indianapolis, and you would have said, ‘Here are what the next four to five months are going to hold for this basketball program,’ I would have had some concerns.”

No worries now. Of course, having a returning All-American center in Cockburn decide to return — after first declaring for the NBA draft, then entering the transfer portal and then deciding to play a third season at Illinois — certainly helps the equation.

Before Cockburn’s much-anticipated announcement on July 16 that he would, indeed, run it back with the Illini for another season, Whitman had a good feeling. Because he learned from Cockburn himself about a week before the announcement the 7-foot, 285-pound big man would become the big man on campus this school year.

And that he’d get to likely dole out a few more massive bear hugs for the massive center.

“I’ll be excited to share a few more hugs with that guy,” Whitman said. “Kofi and I have a great relationship, and I really have a lot of respect for him and care a lot about him. I was appreciative of the fact that he kept me in the loop as he was going through the process this summer. I’m really proud to have him in the orange and blue and looking forward to seeing what he can do with our program this year.”

Most of the attention around the Illini this week will gear towards Friday’s 8 p.m. football kickoff against Maryland at Memorial Stadium. Former Illinois coach Ron Zook, now Maryland’s special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach, will be back in the building he called home from 2005 to 2011.

So will Mike Locksley, now Maryland’s coach who is still thought of in high regard in C-U for serving as the offensive coordinator on the 2007 team that went to the Rose Bowl.

But while the temperatures haven’t started to dip just yet even with the calendar in mid-September, they will soon. The leaves will turn colors, football season will start to wind down and then the real fun will tip off inside State Farm Center.

The Oct. 23 exhibition opener against St. Francis is only an appetizer to what is a meaty regular season schedule. Football will still be on the minds before Cockburn, Andre Curbelo and the rest of their teammates don their familiar home white jerseys eight days before Halloween. Illinois football kicks off at Penn State at 11 a.m. that Saturday at Beaver Stadium, the same venue Bret Bielema got a first glimpse of what his potential first team could look like almost nine months ago.

Bielema is now enduring a rocky start to his Illini tenure, an aspect Underwood can relate to. After all, his first two seasons roaming the sidelines produced a 25-39 record before his program started to turn.

To turn back into the direction many long-time Illini fans expect the program to be at: a perennial Top 25 team with aspirations of a deep run into March.

Perhaps Illinois football reverses course from its 1-2 start, wins a few Big Ten games it isn’t expected to and maybe gives fans some hope in November.

But they’ll already have that hope in less than two months. Because the anticipation of an Illinois basketball season is almost here.

“I’m incredibly excited about this team,” Whitman said. “With the quality players we have and the quality coaches we have, we expect to have a strong season. In order to do that, we’ve got to go out and serve notice on all of college basketball that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Can you feel it? That one word is creeping back into the lexicon of Illinois fans.

Hope.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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