The Revitalization of Illinois Men’s Basketball

Deron Williams. Dee Brown. Luther Head. Those were some of the names on the last Illinois team that made it to the National Championship. If it feels like it has been a long time since then, it has. It’s been 15 years since Illinois fell just short to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game.

In terms of postseason success, it has been a steady decline since that game, to the point when most of the Gen Z audience probably has no idea Illinois was even good at basketball. A crazy concept to think, especially due to all of the history that the program has.

Champaign has seen some great coaches come through its men’s basketball program throughout its history. Its time as a perennial power began with Lou Henson, who between 1975 and 1996 won 423 games and collected 12 NCAA Tournament appearances. They went from Henson to current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who made it to the tournament three out of his four seasons while becoming the only Big Ten coach to sign three consecutive Illinois Mr. Basketball winners.

If that wasn’t enough, Bill Self came in after Kruger departed for the NBA, and won 78 games in three seasons with three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Self gets a majority of the credit for the roster that made it to the National Championship in 2005. He departed after the 2002-03 season for Kansas, opening the door for Bruce Weber. During his time he won 210 games, which is third-most in school history behind Henson and Harry Combes, and qualified for the postseason in seven of his nine seasons.

So if you made it through that history lesson, you read it correctly- Illinois had a chain of coaches that went from Lou Henson to Lon Kruger, then Bill Self and finally Bruce Weber. That is an incredible, highly unlikely stretch for a program that isn’t one of college basketball’s “blue bloods”. So what happened to this program, which enjoyed an extended run of success for the better part of three decades?

After Weber left to lead Kansas State in 2012, Illinois once again had to replace a high-caliber, well respected coach. The popular options at the time were two mid-major coaches that could cash in on their success at a lower-level program.

Shaka Smart was coming off a stretch in which he qualified for back-to-back NCAA Tournaments at Virginia Commonwealth, including the famous Final Four run in 2011 as a play-in team. Brad Stevens made it to back-to-back National Championship games at Butler, putting that program on the map. Both declined interest in the position.

Illinois ended up hiring John Groce, a move that was criticized by some but was actually a solid hire for the program at the time. A young coach looking to build off his years at Ohio, things unfortunately just didn’t work out the way the administration planned during his time in Champaign. Groce, although winning 95 games, only had one NCAA appearance, that being his first year with mainly Weber’s guys.

Enter Brad Underwood, who at the time was the head coach at Oklahoma State. College basketball fans might also recognize him from his time at Stephen F. Austin, where he had a couple of huge NCAA Tournament upsets in 2014 and 2016. He left Stillwater for the job in Champaign in March of 2017, leaving a program that would eventually be caught up in the famous FBI bribery case, although he never had allegations towards him.

Upon his arrival at Illinois, he immediately began to make an impact. The team he inherited from Groce went 14-18 in his first season, but he began to install some of the similar things he did at Oklahoma State. The Illini played at an aggressive rate on offense, touting the second-fastest tempo in the Big Ten, while averaging their highest points per game mark since the 2005 tournament run season. That same tenacity came on the defensive end, as they finished fourth in the nation in turnover rate, a mark that came out at roughly 23.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions.

In a nutshell, he provided the jolt of energy that this program needed. Many looked at the 14-win season and thought more of the same, but the statistics back up his staff’s job.

The 2018-19 season marked the first year in which most of the team was Underwood’s guys. Seven new players had to be incorporated into the team, while only having one senior and one graduate student on the roster. This collection of talent graded out as one of the youngest teams in the country. The challenge came in the schedule, which was the third hardest schedule in the nation according to kenpom.

Renaissance in Champaign continued, as they doubled their in-conference win total from year-to-year, while collecting nine top-80 wins along the way, according to kenpom. The newcomers came to play, as Ayo Dosunmu became the first-ever true freshman to lead the team in scoring. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, another freshman, finished third on the team in that category. Including sophomore Trent Frazier, who was number two, the top three scorers for the Illini had a combined one year of experience going into that season.

One of the major turning points in this process came in recruiting. Underwood was able to land four-star recruit Kofi Cockburn, who was the highest-rated post player to come to Illinois since Meyers Leonard in 2010. The seven-foot center did not disappoint in his freshman season last year, averaging 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game en route to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Cockburn and Dosunmu formed one of the best duos in the Big Ten. Cockburn solidified the interior, becoming the best freshman rebounder in program history, while Dosunmu averaged 16.6 points per game to pace the backcourt as the team’s leading scorer.

The Illini fully came onto the national scene during this past season. They had two top-ten wins over Michigan and Penn State, and finished fourth in a highly competitive conference. Illinois, if the Big Ten played its tournament, would have been a trendy pick to make a deep run. The same goes for the NCAA Tournament, as they missed out on what appeared to be their first trip to the big dance since 2013.

Then came a world of uncertainty. Both Dosunmu and Cockburn were drawing interest in the NBA Draft. To add on, they lost senior Andres Feliz, who was the team’s third leading scorer. After all of the excitement returning to Illinois, it all seemed to be dissipating after arguably its most successful season in years. Underwood was looking at a potential 2020-21 team that would be missing all three of its double-digit scorers.

In a world filled with bad news, the program and its fans began to see some good headlines pop up during the summer. On July 31, Dosunmu announced on Twitter that he was returning the Illinois for a third season. A day later, Cockburn did the same, coming back for his sophomore campaign. Just like that, the Illini were back in business.

The excitement and anticipation for the upcoming Illinois season is palpable in Champaign. The Illini have two of the top ten returning players in the nation, according to Andy Katz. Having to prepare for potentially losing Dosunmu on top of Feliz, Underwood assembled a recruiting class that will instantly bolster the roster.

That class is headlined by four-star guard Adam Miller, who attended the same Chicago high school as Dosunmu while winning Mr. Basketball. Andre Curbelo, another four-star guard, features the high basketball IQ that Underwood recruits are famous for. These two figure to receive immediate minutes within the rotation. Coleman Hawkins, a 6-10 stretch-four, will have the opportunity to contribute right off the jump as well. The final recruit, Brandon Lieb, is a big who will develop under Cockburn.

With other prominent players returning to their respective schools in the Big Ten, Illinois will face a tough task within conference play, but that should equate to countless chances to prove themselves on the national level. The Big Ten, at the time of the stoppage, had six teams in the AP Top 25, with four others receiving votes. To put that in perspective, that is 71 percent of the conference. It will prove to be just as competitive this season.

Fans have been returning in huge numbers to the State Farm Center in recent years, and the program is beginning to see crowds that it did years ago. Illinois, a program that was a perennial power for so many years, seems to be fulfilling its quest to return to prominence. The real test this season will be can they successfully put it all together. If they can, then anticipate a deep postseason run that could include the words “Final Four” in it.

(Cover Photo: James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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