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No Matter What Happens in March, Illinois’ Basketball Program is Back

The culture of Illinois basketball has drastically improved and it’s showing up in the win coulumn.

Illinois Basketball
Photos: Illini Basketball

Where does Illinois basketball’s win over No. 2 Michigan on Tuesday rank on your all-time Fighting Illini regular season wins list?

There are plenty of memorable moments throughout program history.

The time Tyler Griffey shocked No. 1 Indiana.

The time ‘The Brandon Paul game’ happened against No. 5 Ohio State.

The time Ayo Dosumnu beat No. 9 Michigan State as a freshman.

The flashbacks depicted above are all memorable moments in Illinois basketball history, but one fact stretches across all three: Illinois’ program was not one to be proud of at those junctures.

After defeating the second-ranked Wolverines on Tuesday, it finally started to feel as though this team — like the infamous 2004-05 squad — can not only make it all the way to the Final Four but win the whole thing.

It’s been 5,812 days since Illinois lost to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game. Between then and now, there aren’t a lot of years of success. Perhaps Jay Bilas stating that team would beat Kentucky’s 2015 squad is the biggest win during the 2010s for the Illini program. The Wildcats had future NBA stars Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Devin Booker on that team, in case you forgot.

When was the last time Illinois made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years? When they generated tournament five straight tournament berths from 2002-2007. They haven’t made the big dance in consecutive years since then (technically).

At this moment, Illinois hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. That will change this year. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament drought would have ended in 2020. That’s two consecutive years going dancing if you ask me.

Nonetheless, the program is on the rise and all of it is thanks to the team’s leader and head coach Brad Underwood. Underwood’s first two seasons at the helm in Champaign were painful, largely because of the culture within the program. Illinois compiled an 11-27 conference record between Underwood’s first two seasons, but the season prior to his hire, the program was in a terrible state.

Kendrick Nunn has made a nice name for himself in the NBA, but Illinois’ program hit rock bottom in May of 2016 when he was dismissed from the team after pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge.

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Just months prior, Jaylon Tate was arrested for domestic battery. Before Tate, Leron Black was arrested for aggravated assault, allegedly pulling a knife on a club bouncer. These off-court issues and an inability to compete at the top of the Big Ten led to John Groce’s departure.

In Underwood’s first year, he fielded an extremely young team. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams were just freshmen. Many fans had eyes on the future, however, as the program landed a commitment five-star recruit Ayo Dosunmu. For years, many wondered why Groce or Bruce Weber could not get the premier talent from Chicago to venture down to Champaign.

Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor, Jalen Brunson, Frank Kaminsky, Tyler Ulis, Cliff Alexander, Ryan Boatright; the list goes on and on.

Underwood opened eyes when Dosunmu officially signed with Illinois. Dosunmu’s relationship with Adam Miller helped lead the four-star recruit to Champaign this year.

Coach Underwood recruited one of the best bigs in the country in Kofi Cockburn and a future star point guard in Andre Curbelo. Culture aside, Underwood’s recruiting is on another level compared to those of Weber and Groce. It’s not even an argument.

After logging just 11 wins in conference play during his first two seasons, Underwood has only lost 11 league games over the last two seasons. His brand of basketball is instilled in Champaign and it’s a wonderful thing for Illini fans.

Watching Illinois win games the last two seasons has been a refreshing feeling, but with last night’s win over Michigan, there is no better regular-season win in recent history.

This team is special. This team is hungry.

Time will tell if they can win a National Championship, but seeing this program back to a respectable level is something all Illini fans can be proud of.

Saturday at Ohio State will be another tough test. Indianapolis is on the horizon, however. It’s almost tourney time.


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