Column | Illinois men’s basketball isn’t “back” until it makes at least the Sweet 16

Coach+Brad+Underwood+goes+over+play+strategies+during+a+timeout+at+the+Big+Ten+tournament+on+March+11.+Coach+Underwood+and+the+team+still+face+low+expectations+in+performance+for+the+upcoming+NCAA+tournament.

Cameron Krasucki

Coach Brad Underwood goes over play strategies during a timeout at the Big Ten tournament on March 11. Coach Underwood and the team still face low expectations in performance for the upcoming NCAA tournament.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

If there’s one thing the Illinois men’s basketball program has in common with the “blue bloods” of college hoops, it’s the fans. That’s about it.

Once upon a time, fans of the state’s flagship University had a consistent contender to match their passionate devotion. With five Final Four appearances, the 16th most wins by any school in the country and a long list of successful alumni, Illinois was considered the best program without a national championship.

Nearly two decades of disappointment have left Illinois far outside that conversation. And while Illinois has dropped back, Gonzaga, Villanova and University of Connecticut have established themselves in that second tier of basketball royalty. 

Under head coach Brad Underwood, the tides have started turning, but even three years atop the Big Ten hasn’t moved the needle much. Around the country faith in the Illini is low.

More than half of people who’ve entered ESPN’s Men’s Tournament Challenge so far have predicted another second-round exit for the Illini, and several experts, including Sports Illustrated’s Jason Jordan and USA Today’s Erick Smith, have Illinois being upset by Chattanooga in the first round.

A first-round exit would be devastating for Underwood’s reputation and for Illinois basketball’s future. So what can Illinois do to get a win on Friday and start building their case as a “blue blood” program? 

It’ll start with consistency. The Illini have been one of the streakiest teams in the nation this season, living and dying by the three. Their lack of consistency is evident on defense as well, where they’ve given up big runs to nearly every team in the Big Ten.

Consistency will be the key for Underwood to raise the status of his program as well. For comparison, Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo has led the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1998, his third year on the job.

After the Illini played the Spartans earlier this season, Underwood shared his admiration for Izzo and his program. He even went as far to say that Michigan State was the blueprint for a successful program.

So far, Underwood is on a decent track. His team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in three of his first five seasons, matching Izzo’s number in his first five years with the Spartans. The difference is, in those three years Michigan State made the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and won a national championship.

Illinois has only made it to the second round under Underwood, though it’s important to note that the tournament was canceled in 2020. Anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance this year will look like failure.

Izzo is in the Hall of Fame for a reason, and runs like that are rare. Despite making six Final Fours since 2000 and three since 2010, Michigan State isn’t mentioned in the same boat as Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and UCLA.

It just goes to show how much of a gap there is between the “titans” of the Big Ten and those of the nation. If everything goes well for the next decade, Illinois will still be a decade away from “blue blood” status.

Reclaiming heavyweight status within the Big Ten will be a much shorter task. With the continued development of freshmen, improved recruiting and maybe even another season or two with junior center Kofi Cockburn, Illinois could add one or two more season titles, tying it with Wisconsin and Ohio State for third all-time.

At that point, the undying devotion of the Illini nation will make more sense.

 

@JonesChristianT

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