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The Path Has Been Laid

We won’t need to wait 16 more years to see a team like this.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Loyola-Chicago at Illinois Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t stung watching this year’s Big Dance. My nose would be growing if I told you that I wasn’t crushed seeing Illinois’ best team since 2005 bow out in the Round of 32. My pants would be on fire if I wrote that it was fun watching Houston defeat FOUR double-digit seeds — in Illinois’ region, no less — en route to the Final Four.

But only one team can cut down the nets. And after watching the tourney unfold — mostly without the Illini involved — it became apparent that no matter how far they advanced, they probably weren’t going to beat Baylor or Gonzaga. The two best teams in the country played Monday night.

As we attempt to put a bow on the 2020-21 season, much can be said. I’ll do my best to sum up my thoughts here.

Clearly there was a lack of adjustments made during the loss to Loyola. Illinois played the Ramblers’ game throughout and the Illini weren’t able to “flip the switch” like we’d seen so many times before. It was no doubt a disheartening end to an otherwise sensational season. But this column is not going to be an indictment of Brad Underwood — that’s what the ol’ comments section is for! — he’s one helluva coach, players (mostly) like playing for him, and he has surrounded himself with a stable of valuable and talented assistant coaches. The Illini are in good hands.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Baylor Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

No longer is the men’s basketball program languishing in mediocrity. No longer will fans have to squirm every March wondering if the Illini can win three or four games in as many days to salvage hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth. And no longer will we have to yearn for Illinois to matter. That’s already happened. And it’s going to continue to happen.

And since when is adversity a bad thing in sports? Isn’t rising up and overcoming challenges part of what makes the reward more satisfying? We literally saw this two years ago with the University of Viriginia. The Cavaliers won a NATIONAL TITLE just one year after being pantsed in the first round by a 16-seed. UVA was mercilessly ridiculed for being the first top seed to lose in the first round. Instead of that being a program-defining loss, the Cavaliers charged into the Big Dance the following year and won the whole damn thing.

The Illini’s loss in this year’s tournament could lead to a similar turnaround. Only time will tell.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Illinois Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Does this mean I’m expecting to see multiple banners hanging from the rafters in Champaign? Don’t be silly. Does this mean we won’t experience more heartbreak and (March) sadness? Of course not. But waiting EIGHT seasons in between NCAA Tournament appearances? Waiting SIXTEEN years to say “that might be the best Illini team I’ve ever seen?” No and no.

The college basketball landscape is rapidly changing. Guys like Ayo, Giorigi, Trent & DMW have helped lay the path, and the Fighting Illini still have a very exciting future ahead.