Why Illinois basketball is the Big Ten's most likely next first-time champion
Sunday, the historically successful yet trophyless Ole Miss baseball program finally broke through for its 1st national championship in the sport.
The year prior, archrival Mississippi State won the College World Series to clinch its maiden championship in any team sport.
Given that we are in the 3rd century of collegiate sports teams being awarded national championships, it’s increasingly rare to find such programs. But they do still exist. (Virginia Tech and Kansas State are the lone Power 5 schools still without a national title in team sports.)
Several Big Ten programs find themselves in the same position that Ole Miss baseball was in prior to this season — perpetually in the Top 25 in a select sport, yet unable to get over the championship hump. And in no sport is that more true than men’s basketball.
There are 6 B1G basketball programs among the nation’s top 50 all-time in wins. Of that group, Purdue (12th all-time), Illinois (14th) and Iowa (37th) have not won an NCAA championship.
Surely the drought can’t last forever.
At some point, 1 of those 3 programs seems bound to break through. And given enough time, perhaps all of them will. Though given how things have gone for B1G basketball in the 21st century — no team has won it all since Michigan State in 2000 — that might be a long time indeed.
But when it finally does happen, Illinois will be cutting down the nets as the Big Ten’s next first-time champ in basketball or football.
History favors the Fighting Illini
History is no small thing in this case, and Illinois has proven itself as the program most capable of reaching a championship level — albeit sparingly.
Twice the Illini knocked on the door.
In 1989, Michigan beat Illinois in the Final Four on a last-second put-back. The Wolverines went on to top Seton Hall for the title.
Illinois returned to the Final Four in 2005, losing to North Carolina by 5 in the national championship game.
The only thing left to do is kick in the door.
Purdue and Iowa remain a few steps behind in that regard. Ironically and against all odds, both programs last reached the Final Four in the same season — 1980. And that part of the equation clearly carries a weight over both programs.
This year, the red-hot Hawkeyes were one of the trendiest picks to make the Final Four after singeing the nets at the Big Ten Tournament. Instead, they were upset by an average Richmond team that got clobbered by 28 points in the second round.
The barn door was open even wider for Purdue in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The Boilermakers went to the East Regional in Philadelphia as the best seed remaining in the field. But the Boilers were stunned by 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16.
Matt Painter addressed the issue after that loss.
“I think about it all the time,” Painter said. “But it’s not going to stop me from driving to get here and get back in this position again and try to get over that hurdle. That’s what our players deserve and our fans deserve.”
When the Boilermakers finally do make it to the Final Four, that seal will be broken and they’ll probably win the whole thing. But it’s fair to wonder what it’s going to take to actually make that happen.
Glenn Robinson, Brian Cardinal, Carsen Edwards, Caleb Swanigan and Jaden Ivey are quite likely half of the top 10 players in Purdue history, yet none of their teams got beyond the Elite Eight.
Circumstance also favors Illinois
History doesn’t win championships. If that were the case, Indiana would be adding banners rather than just dusting them off.
Recruiting wins championships. And when Illinois has the right coaching staff in place, it has the ability to regularly be among the Big Ten’s best in that department.
As a state, Illinois has a high school basketball culture that is second only to Indiana. And though talent is plentiful in Purdue’s backyard, the competition to keep it there is intense. Indiana, Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Louisville and Kentucky are all swimming in those waters.
Though the competition is always stiff for the top talent in Chicago — landing the top player often means beating the likes of Duke, Kentucky or Kansas — Illinois has the ability to establish more local hegemony. Northwestern is not a factor. Long gone are the days of DePaul being a destination.
Matching the Illini in recruiting will always be a challenge for Iowa. There are only so many ballers in the Quad Cities.
Under Fran McCaffery, the Hawkeyes excel on the strength of developing 3-star recruits like Keegan Murray into college stars. But Iowa hasn’t had a higher-ranked signing class than Illinois since 2016 — among the many feats that helped get John Groce fired.
Illinois has the No. 9 signing class nationally in 2022 — far ahead of Purdue (28th) and Iowa (53rd).
The new era of NIL and the transfer portal may only serve to enhance Illinois’ edge.
Brad Underwood added 2 of the top transfers in this year’s class in Baylor’s Matthew Mayer and Texas Tech’s Terrence Shannon.
Painter, who was reticent to add transfers in the past, notably failed to land point guards Nijel Pack, Tyrese Hunter, Courtney Ramey or Malachi Smith. Perhaps he’ll get a better feel for that brand of recruitment moving forward, but Underwood is clearly a step ahead.
Will Brad Underwood be the coach to win it all?
Though Illinois has the natural advantages to someday win a title, Underwood is in danger of becoming a master of postseason underachievement. And some would say he’s already there.
The Illini had their 2 best rosters since 2005 the past 2 seasons, but were eliminated in the second round both years. If Underwood doesn’t break through soon, the Sweet 16 will become to Illinois what the Final Four is to Iowa and Purdue.
But perhaps Ole Miss’ College World Series title is proof that such reputations don’t always live forever.
For years, the joke around the SEC was that Omaha was actually an acronym: Ole Miss Ain’t Here Again. After 12 years of hearing those cracks, Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco finally brought the Rebels there in 2014. It took Bianco another 8 years to get back and finally finish the job.
Obviously, college baseball coaches tend to deal with a higher level of booster patience. But Bianco’s path is proof that sometimes it’s just a matter of getting enough cracks at it.
Illinois and Underwood seem made from the same mold. Someday, that may provide the Illini with the same championship result.