There is a future for Illinois sports, especially Illinois basketball.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it proudly again, that I’m in the Marching Illini and a member of the Fighting Illini Athletic Bands. I get to go places most ‘journalists’ don’t get to go, like an Illinois alumni club event in downtown New York City prior to Illinois’ opening round Big Ten Tournament game versus Iowa on Wednesday.
My bandmates and myself played a selection of songs for the group, which probably had about 50-60 alumni eating appetizers, drinking liquor and getting ready to head over to Madison Square Garden for Big Ten basketball in a city that probably is not interested. Howard Milton, Senior Associate Athletics Director, spoke first, introducing the guest everyone is most interested in, Josh Whitman.
Whitman reaches two years on the job as Illinois’ athletic director this coming Monday, March 5, two years to the date since he fired Bill Cubit on Day One and did not look back.
I’ve heard Whitman speak many times. I’ve interviewed him, asked him questions in press conferences and read up on the man. But one line he said Wednesday struck me (as a fan) in a different way.
“We have a chance to write one of the great college athletics stories of all time.”
What! What? What.
Breaking down that line can be its own column, but looking at the bare bones of it, Whitman’s goal is to take what was a depleted athletic program during the downfall of Mike Thomas and turn it into a national powerhouse in all of its sports, especially football and men’s basketball.
That’s the goal, but, as can be seen from Wednesday’s 96-87 loss to the Hawkeyes, is not yet the case.
Illinois is not yet at a place where it can write a success story.
Hell, the program is still in its introduction.
And that’s probably what should be remembered during what seems like a wasted season for men’s basketball.
In his first season as head coach, Brad Underwood was given the massive goal of working with a short (in height and depth) roster and guiding them to success to feed a hungry fanbase. He lost Tilmon and Pickett, and Underwood should probably just consider himself lucky he was able to retain Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams — both now cornerstones of the future — and pick up Mark Smith, Greg Eboigbodin, Mark Alstork (and Matic Vesel).
Five of those six additions were freshmen, one of them recovering from a knee injury (Williams), one of them probably not ready for this level (Vesel), and two of them needing to adjust to the college game (Smith and Eboigbodin).
Thinking about what Underwood wants his team to be and the type of player he wants, Frazier might be the only one that truly currently fits that mold. And that’s probably what there is to it — it’s going to take a
while long time to get this program to any sort of respectable place.
Yeah, but Stephen, even Rutgers won a tournament game this season.
Great, I’m ecstatic for the Rutgers fans who get to watch another game at Madison Square Garden.
Our Brad Repplinger wrote a great piece Tuesday about the meaning of an Illini win in the Big Ten Tournament, and I agree, it would’ve been nice. It would’ve showed progress and a forward direction, but the fight I saw AGAIN from Illinois on Wednesday shows me that anyways, even if the final score didn’t.
Fourteen wins at Illinois is unacceptable. Four conference wins is incomprehensible, especially when two of those are against the Scarlet Knights.
But Underwood, Frazier, Leron Black, Ayo Dosunmu and Co. are on their way to something. A NCAA bid may not be in the cards in 2019 either, yet the pieces are there, and that’s what this season was about.
If Illinois is going to write one of the great stories in college athletics history, it needs to start somewhere.
This awful-looking basketball season was the start. May next season be Chapter One.