Illini’s success is no longer a joking matter

Now entering our senior years, my roommates and I have had a long-running joke. Rather than contemplating attending graduate school to gain expertise and experience in our fields of choice, we sometimes mull over obtaining a master’s degree solely because we want to stay around campus long enough to see highly touted recruit Jereme Richmond team up with Illini basketball players to lead our beloved Illini to a national championship.

With the direction the basketball program ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­— and Illinois athletics as a whole — is heading, we may have to stop kidding around.

Simply put, there hasn’t been a better time to be a freshman at the University of Illinois. A handful of Illinois athletic programs competing this fall are in the top 25 and, in some cases, among the nation’s elite.

From the University Blue and Orange Course, where one of the country’s top golf programs calls home, to Huff Hall, where one of the nation’s top volleyball players does her work, there’s an aura of excitement in the air.

That excitement surely will find its way to Memorial Stadium, home to the sport that is often the starting and ending point in collegiate sports bragging rights discussions. Despite struggling to a 5-7 season in 2008, the Illinois football team has the talent to turn it around in a big way this fall.

The Illini return a three-year starting quarterback in Juice Williams and every skill player who saw serious playing time on offense last year, including a receiving corps that is the best in the Big Ten, if not the nation. Because the defense might struggle to fill some holes, expect a plethora of track meets … err, high-scoring games … when the Illinois gridders take the field. But always expect excitement.

Volleyball is coming off a Sweet 16 run in 2008, with the core of the team that won 26 matches returning. The squad is led by Laura DeBruler, a Second Team All-American last year who was sixth in the country in kills per set. The Illini already have been tabbed No. 13 in one preseason poll and are primed to contend for the conference crown.

Packing the small, humid, hot Huff Hall with screaming fans is one way to support the team, but the best volleyball match to watch this year might not be at the team’s usual home venue. Rather, circle the Oct. 16 contest against Minnesota, a preseason top-10 team, on your calendar. The match will be held in conjunction with the men’s basketball team’s Illini Madness at Assembly Hall in an effort to break the regular-season NCAA volleyball attendance record.

The ladies on the soccer pitch also had a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008 and return a wealth of experience. Illinois soccer is ranked No. 17 in the preseason poll and will play the toughest schedule in the history of the program, highlighted by a Sept. 4 home contest against perennial power UCLA, which advanced to the national semifinals last season.

Don’t sleep on the men’s golf team just because it plays the overwhelmingly majority of its matches away from Champaign. Instead, take pride in a team that, in 2008-09, won seven tournaments, held the No. 1 ranking for three weeks and captured the Big Ten title. And the best part about the men’s golf squad? It returns everyone — yes, everyone — from one of the greatest seasons in school history.

Late fall and winter brings Illinois basketball to the forefront in Champaign and possibly the nation. Rarely has there been so much potential for a team coming off a 10-21 season, but that’s the case for the Illinois women’s basketball team. The Illini return an All-American candidate in center Jenna Smith and a phenomenal all-around player in Lacey Simpson. Combine that with several sophomores who received extensive playing time last year and the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, and it’s not out of the question for Jolette Law’s team to challenge for the Big Ten title and make noise on the national stage.

Of course, U of I is a basketball school nowadays, with all eyes on Bruce Weber’s Illini, who come off a 24-win campaign. Most of the talk this summer has centered on a four-man freshman class that will bring a world of talent and an abundance of athleticism to the team. But with the Big Ten’s premier low-post duo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis and the return of Demetri McCamey at guard, the Illini also have the experience to win the conference title and make the deep NCAA Tournament run that has eluded Illinois since the 2005 team was the national runner-up.

As for me? I’ll be enjoying a great year of Illinois athletics and hoping the basketball team can win that national championship.

Otherwise, you know, I’ll have to go to grad school.

Cody is a senior in Media.