Fans expect improvement from the Illini men’s basketball program this season and that’s certainly achievable.
Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Andres Feliz, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and company are all a year more experienced, and coach Brad Underwood has added an exciting freshman class in Kofi Cockburn, Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and Jermaine Hamlin. And, truth be told, the nonconference schedule shouldn’t be nearly as challenging as it was a year ago.
So, will the 2019-20 edition be the most improved Illinois team ever? In terms of comparing winning percentages from one season to the next, probably not. That particular record will almost certainly remain with the 1907-08 Illini team that bettered its winning percentage from .091 in 1906-07 (1-10 record) to .769 a year later (20-6). Statistically, this year’s squad would have to win more than 90 percent of its games, so you can realistically rule that out.
Here are Illinois’ 10 most improved men’s basketball teams and reasons why they got so much better from one year to the next:
1. 1-10 in 1906-07 (.091 winning percentage) to 20-6 in 1907-08 (.769) ... improvement of .678
(Why the improvement? Coach Fletcher Lane’s only Illini squad benefitted from a 22-day southern trip in mid-December to early January that got victories from several YMCA and club teams. It cooled off during the Big Ten season, finishing with a 6-5 conference mark. By the way, future International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was a member of that team.)
2. 11-13 in 1967-68 (.458) to 19-5 in 1968-69 (.792) ... improvement of plus .334
Why the improvement? Harv Schmidt’s ’68-69 club won all 10 of its nonconference games and nine of its 14 league contests, thanks to the return of stars Mike Price, Dave Scholz and Jodie Harrison. The addition of sophomore center Greg Jackson’s 16.4 points per game proved to be the most legitimate spark.
3. 5-12 in 1927-28 (.294) to 10-7 in 1928-29 (.588) improvement of plus .294
Why the improvement? Veteran coach Craig Ruby added Charles “Bur” Harper and Elbridge May from ’27-28’s outstanding freshmen class to returning vets Doug Mills, Ernie Dorn and Earl Drew. That helped Illinois improve its conference record from 2-10 to 6-6.
4. 9-15 in 1960-61 (.375) to 15-8 in 1961-62 (.652) improvement of plus .277
Why the improvement? Four returning starters — Dave Downey, Jerry Colangelo, Bill Burwell and Bill Small — all gave coach Harry Combes double-figure scoring in ’61-62, but the contribution from Bob Starnes (9.6 points and 6.4 rebounds) gave Illinois an extra boost it needed.
5. 14-18 in 1998-99 (.438) to 22-10 in 1999-2000 (.689) improvement of plus .251
Why the improvement? Illinois’s momentum from its improbable run in the ’99 Big Ten tournament and the addition of Frank Williams, Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin helped coach Lon Kruger’s Illini improve by eight games in ’99-00 and finish 21st in the AP national poll.
6. 16-19 in 2007-08 (.457) to 24-10 in 2008-09 (.706) improvement of plus .249
Why the improvement? Senior leadership from Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham, and the double-figure scoring of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale aided Illinois as it climbed from a tie for ninth in the Big Ten to a tie for second.
7. 8-18 in 1974-75 (.308) to 14-13 in 1975-76 (.519) improvement of plus .211
Why the improvement? The change in head coaches from Gene Bartow to rookie coach Lou Henson got the proud Illini program back on the right track. The emergence of freshman forward Rich Adams also was a big plus.
8. 13-14 in 1977-78 (.482) to 19-11 in 1978-79 (.633) improvement of plus .151
Why the improvement? The Illini’s 15-game winning streak began the ’78-79 season with two more victories than the year before, but a mid-season injury to Steve Lanter caused a precipitous downfall in the second half.
T-9. 15-19 in 2015-16 (.441) to 20-15 in 2016-17 (.571) improvement of plus .130
Why the improvement? Having injured star Tracy Abrams back in the lineup was probably the biggest reason for improvement for coach John Groce’s ’16-17 unit that recorded four victories in its last five Big Ten games.
T-9. 13-15 in 1991-92 (.464) to 19-13 in 1992-93 (.594) improvement of plus .130
Why the improvement? Andy Kaufmann added 17.3 points per game to an Illinois lineup that it was missing from the year before. Freshman Richard Keene bombed away for 8.3 ppg more. The Illini tied for third in the Big Ten and got back to the NCAA tournament.
Sunday: Marko Koers, track & field (47)
Monday: V’Angelo Bentley, football (26)
Tuesday: Aaron Moorehead, football (39)
Wednesday: Aleah Treiterer, soccer (18)
Thursday: Lars Davis, baseball (34)
Friday: Hanna Winter, track & field (25)
Saturday: James McCourt, football (22)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.