CHAMPAIGN — Red Grange and Dick Butkus have their statues. Five Rose Bowl appearances even puts Illinois football just outside the top 10 for total appearances in “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
It just doesn’t quite compare to the Whiz Kids and Flyin’ Illini and national runners-up with guys that can go by a single name in Champaign. It might have come 15 years ago, but the Dee, Deron and Luther Illini are remembered just as reverently.
Six bowl appearances and four winning seasons in the last 20 years for Illinois football? Surely a disappointment for Illini fans.
But seven straight seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance (because this year’s didn’t actually happen)?
End. Of. The. World.
It’s not a blistering hot take to call Illinois a basketball school. Probably not even lukewarm. But things change when a basketball school flounders on the basketball court.
The 2019-20 Illinois basketball season, then, was a beacon of hope to end what had become a real disappointment of a decade. It didn’t always seem that way, not with almost losing to Nicholls State in the season opener last November or crumbling in the first half at home against Miami or another 20-point loss on the road at Michigan State.
But at the end?
Illinois was an NCAA tournament team, albeit unofficially. Ayo Dosunmu and Co. had flipped the script thanks in no small part to winning 12 of the last 17 games and snapping some lengthy losing streaks in Madison, Wis., and West Lafayette, Ind., in the process.
A program record-21 losses a year prior became 21 wins and a top-four finish in the Big Ten.
Now it’s about sustainability. Illinois coach Brad Underwood doesn’t mind dropping the tidbit that the Associated Press named the Illini the No. 11 program in college basketball history a few years ago. That type of notoriety was born under Monticello native Harry Combes in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, but it didn’t fully take root until Lou Henson led the Illini to a dozen NCAA tournament appearances and more than 400 wins in his 21 seasons as coach.
That paved the way for more success under Lon Kuger, Bill Self and the early days of Bruce Weber.
A single NCAA tournament appearance — one the Illini will actually get a chance to play in — is the first of many steps back toward Illinois basketball actually being Illinois basketball again. The program seems poised for that with Underwood at the helm.
Recruiting has improved. Dosunmu became Kofi Cockburn became Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. A more experienced team should be able to keep the program humming in 2020-21 should Dosunmu and/or Cockburn decide professional basketball is next. The ceiling might be lower, but the floor is now considerably higher than it had been.
Program building has never been tougher for those that can’t simply rely on the next batch of five-star recruits. Those that can boast sustainable success keep their transfer losses to a minimum and exploit the portal to their advantage. Consistent recruiting doesn’t hurt.
If it was simple, everyone would do it. That’s Underwood’s challenge. Illinois might be the No. 11 college basketball program of all time. It’s not when that window is shrunk to a smaller scale.
Something to shoot for.