In 2003, my father asked me if I thought Bill Self would leave the University of Illinois for the University of Kansas. At the time, I could not fathom him leaving. He was incredibly successful and had Illinois on a run that has not yet been replicated. I felt he was about to set up Illinois as a perennial Big Ten Champion and NCAA Tournament mainstay. I mean, I was convinced the Illinois Men’s Basketball team was about to win several National Championships.
I was so wrong.
Sure, his replacement, Bruce Weber, took Self’s recruits and made the NCAA Championship game losing to the cheating University of North Carolina. And then the bottom fell out. Weber lost the team, was relieved of his duties, and we hired a MAC coach in John Groce who just couldn’t recruit or have much in the way of success. Sigh.
Enter Josh Whitman.
The new AD fired Groce and hired Brad Underwood. It took a few years of losing seasons, but Underwood had a plan. Paying dues for a couple of seasons meant establishing a culture and finding the right guys. Winning on the recruiting front finally paid off and last year was one of the best squads Illinois fielded in years.
Gelling at the right time, last year, Illinois was about to return to the NCAA Tournament with everyone looking to see how far they could go. The excitement was off the charts in Champaign.
And then COVID-19 hit.
No more Big Ten Tournament. No NCAA Tournament. It looked like Illinois, on the brink of a breakout season, just had it all taken away in an instant.
No more games. At least for the foreseeable future. Worse yet, it would be the last time we’d see Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn suit up for the Fighting Illini. As a fan, I was frustrated.
While the pandemic has raged far longer than initially expected, sports have come back, and Illinois basketball is again on the verge of something special. Of course, it all started when Dosunmu posted a video to Twitter. I held my breath and hit play. I knew he was saying thank you to the fans, and he was off to chase his NBA dreams.
Instead… he was coming back.
Like a shot of nitro, the future of Illinois Basketball went from 0 to 60 in seconds. No one thought Ayo was coming back. It was a pipedream, yet here it was for everyone to see. He was back.
And then Kofi said he’s back too.
Once Ayo was on board, the speculation immediately turned to Kofi. In less than 24 hours, we all knew. Setting up a coordinated announcement made the talking heads at ESPN and the Big Ten Network pay more attention to Champaign and Illinois Basketball. And that’s something I never thought I’d see again. Especially, not at this level.
The pandemic screwed last year’s Illinois squad from showcasing a team on the verge and one no opponent wanted to face. Of course, it wasn’t just the team. Dosunmu got screwed too. He didn’t get an NCAA Tournament to impress scouts. He didn’t get a combine or personal interviews with potential NBA teams. It was out of his hands, but his future was always going forward. The video set it all out.
He had unfinished business. Instead of sulking, he turned his attention to getting better and returning to the University to make something happen. He was going to bring the Fighting Illini back to college basketball prominence. His leadership, character, and work ethic were about to be on the big stage once again. The accolades started pouring in, and this season was potentially going to be special.
After four games, I think we know what we have on the court. A talented Ohio squad showed them you can’t take anyone for granted, and the number two team in the country, Baylor, showed them what to aspire to become.
Tonight, Illinois faced #10, Duke, in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Beating a perennial college basketball blue-blood on their home floor is an impact statement. This team is legit good.
I want to think fans will discuss this 2020 team in the same breath as the 1989 and 2005 teams. Those are high expectations. We are at least on the same 16-year cycle.
All I ever wanted was to root for a college basketball program that competes at the highest level. The time has come.
It’s still a long season and the pandemic could throw a wet blanket on everything, but Illinois Basketball is back and not a moment too soon.