I’ve made the same spiel a countless number of times. I went to Illinois during the Illini’s dark ages — maybe not as dark as some of other dark ages in department history, but they were certainly dark.
Illinois remarkably never made a bowl game or a NCAA Tournament — men’s or women’s basketball — during my time in college. Men’s basketball lost in the NIT once, one win away from the Final Four, but the game was played in Tacko Fall’s place because there was a musical at State Farm Center. Yada, yada, you all know the rest. There were a lot of individual accomplishments, but we know that’s not where the fanbase gravitates.
So that takes us to this year.
Illinois makes a bowl game — one that didn’t suck all too much — only to lose. At least Brandon Peters dove.
And then I watched a whole season of Illinois from my sofa, only to see the Illini make it to No. 19 in the polls and be set to potentially win the Big Ten Tournament.
Only for this pandemic thing to happen.
And now we’re here. It’s July. And I’ve still never felt any payoff from my fandom.
But that could change in the coming weeks.
It’s easy to think The Basketball Tournament and House of ‘Paign is a stupid gimmick. The Tournament, while real and televised and bringing professional basketball players from all around, is still not the NBA, and people won’t take it overly serious. It’s just pickup basketball basically. Some schoolyard stuff, where you try to assemble the best group of guys and say, “Who’s next?”
But that’s enough for me. We all want sports obviously, and having to quarantine hundreds of players in Columbus (yuck) for a few weeks to play basketball isn’t how we want to watch it go down, but here we are. And it’s going to happen, barring anything spectacularly bad in the next few days.
So, yeah, back to HoP. The team probably doesn’t appeal to anyone who was a diehard of the 2005 team, or the 1989 team, or literally anyone else who hasn’t sat through the dark ages and belted an I-L-L, but it appeals to me. These are my guys (minus Mav).
Michael Finke? This man was the big man I always dreamed the Illini would have. Leron Black, when he turned it on as a senior? Oh, baby, there was nobody better from 15 feet out. Malcolm Hill, when he kissed the court on Senior Night, I felt that. He played through all this garbage to lose to UCF in the NIT and still wanted to kiss the court. Andres Feliz? He didn’t have to go to Illinois, but he did, and he didn’t deserve how it ended for him.
There’s other guys, too, but those are the ones that speak to me the most. In some strange way, this is my dream team, all of the Illini I’ve watched growing up through high school and college and now post-grad coming together.
It’s called The Tournament. For my fandom, and many others in the same boat as me, this is OUR Tournament.
In no way does this replace the NCAA Tournament, but it feels right that this is the way we finally get that feeling of one-and-done.
And, hey, the Illini haven’t broke my heart in four months. So them losing on an Elam Ending from some dude who went to Wofford might be the only normal thing I have going for me right now.