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THIS...is ILLINOIS BASKETBALL!

It’s been well over a decade since the hype felt like this.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings, friends. It’s been a while.

You may know me as the elder statesman of the writers room who refuses to grow up, as evidenced by video toasts to the fanbase after our football games.

Despite what my unhealthy level of devotion would suggest, I am not quite a Fighting Illini lifer. I didn’t grow up in a big college sports family, and none of my friends were into the Illini enough that I had any reason to care. I was aware of the 2005 title game run for the basketball team, but that only registered a, “Oh, hey, that’s neat!” to me. I was a late commit to Illinois engineering, so I didn’t even get myself hyped up ahead of time.

My fan journey began in the fall of 2007 in Allen Hall, where I didn’t imagine that sports fandom would occupy a huge priority but certainly knew I liked football and we were in the Big Ten. The vast majority of the people I asked about Illini football told me some variation of “Yeah, we went 2-10 last year and we’ve sucked for years, it’s par for the course, look I don’t know why you’re asking me about football when one of the top college basketball experiences in the country is right across the street.”

Basketball, so I was told, was such a powerhouse that I wouldn’t even miss football if I decided to just forget about it. We never lose at home, we’re always ranked and on national television, and March Madness is a BLAST!

Of course, you know what happened. Football produced several high profile wins and this led to a few years of a packed stadium with an energy I’m still chasing to this day. The basketball team racked up 19 losses my freshman year, but I was assured we were just transitioning. The crowd was still fantastic, and this element never wavered, but everyone seemed to be waiting for Illinois to burst back into title contending form, and flashes of potential never seemed to lead anywhere. I took a long-term girlfriend to a home game; it was a campus bucket list item for her, after all. A frustrating loss to Purdue ended up being just about the last straw for this relationship.* A team that seemed destined to squeeze in for the tournament lost early in the Big Ten Tournament and ended up playing Stony Brook on the road in the NIT because the circus was in town.

In 2010 I joined the basketball band and got an up-close experience as I recalibrated expectations for Illini basketball, and it was a pretty fun season. From the awkward silence against Oakland when DJ Richardson realized they were playing with a woman’s ball to the abhorrent orange-on-red game against Wisconsin and Jordan Taylor’s high-top fade, there were ups and downs but I was able to travel with the team to the NCAA Tournament! A second-round exit to Bill Self was expected and materialized, but I was glad I’d gotten in on a year of Pretty Fun Illinois Basketball and maybe the behemoth that once was would return next year.

It’s mostly been downhill since then. Thirteen years, three tournament appearances. I began dating my wife not long after the last of these. She’s still never seen Illinois play in the tournament. Every January swoon would make her question more and more my insistence that Illinois Basketball is a GREAT AND HISTORIC INSTITUTION that TOTALLY MATTERS in college basketball.

Well, after all this time, I finally took her to a game, and after Ayo assassinated Michigan with us in the building, I think she’s finally seeing my perspective that Illinois is a fun team that should generally be contending for the tournament every year and Also Receiving Votes.

But even that didn’t prepare me for the hype of NO. 5 ILLINOIS VS. NO. 2 BAYLOR. This might not be the biggest, most important game we’ve played in over a decade, but this is the first time in my entire history as an Illini fan that it’s felt like the Illinois Basketball experience I was promised as a freshman. We may win, we may lose big, but it feels like we deserve to be in a Top-10 Matchup to start off a season where we’ll be on TV a lot because we should be ranked throughout. For the first time in my whole experience, we’re talking about paths to the conference title and protected seeds, not, “How far can we get in the Big Ten Tournament from the 8 or 9 seed and will that be enough to earn Last 4 In status?”

For all the doubts I had about Brad Underwood early on, I’ll gladly eat crow for the remainder of my days if it means we get to have this level of hype every year.

THIS.

is ILLINOIS BASKETBALL!

*Note: this relationship was already in a downward slide that was accelerated by the events of the Fresno State football game a month earlier