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Two sports, one blueprint

We’re seeing football and basketball ascend in the same way.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois has the chance to make this season magical.

I’m not talking about a top-10 ranking or a spot in the College Football Playoff. But a 9-3 or 8-4 season where Illinois is always in contention for a trip to Indy will be enough, even if we don’t make it.

Don’t get me wrong. The thoughts are already in my head and a Google alert has been set for flights from Seattle to Indianapolis in the first week of December. But we’re not quite there yet.

A week ago, I remember talking to my friends about the next three games. To make a bowl, we just needed to steal 1 of 3. I didn’t expect that goal to be met before our home games against Iowa and Minnesota.

The next two games are what I like to call barometer games—at home against Big Ten West opponents. In every aspect, from team morale, fans support, and recruiting, these next two home games set the stage for the next few years.

We saw this happen a few years ago when Brad Underwood took over the program across the street.

Year 1

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Underwood inherited a program that wasn’t the most disciplined. The culture of Illinois under John Groce was never about winning games: it was about not losing. However, Illinois had a core set of players that would be essential to the rebuild process. Bielema was dealt a similar hand.

For Underwood, freshmen Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams and returning players like Kipper Nichols, Michael Finke, and Leron Black were essential to the rebuild. Frazier and Williams were probably the most important of that bunch, but they collectively created that culture. If you watched them, you realized that Illinois was competitive in most Big Ten games, even if the record didn't show it.

Much like Bielema’s first year, the 2017-18 Illinois basketball team struggled to close games. But they had the parts.

Alex Palcsewski, Doug Kramer, Isaiah Williams, the Brown Brothers, Vederian Lowe, Tony Adams, and Jake Hansen were all crucial in establishing that culture in Year 1. (I would keep going, and there are a lot of important players, but you get the point.) Both teams never had that culture of winning. More importantly, they didn’t know HOW to win. And Bielema mentioned that in a press conference last year.

Nonetheless, that first season set the standard for the future.

Years 2 and 3

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

Without success, it’s hard to recruit. But Bielema and Underwood did the same thing. Stress the culture they were building and home in on key recruits. Establish a relationship and, most importantly, find that diamond in the rough.

For basketball, those players were Ayo, Kofi, and fan-favorite Giorgi.

With the base set and the culture oriented the right way, you're just one or two players away from changing everything.

Illinois beat ranked opponents on the road and was competitive at home.

As a fan, those two crucial years were some big building blocks. Ayo was a star right away. Trent was becoming that floor general. Kofi and Giorgi added that extra dimension in the paint that was missing.

And you’re seeing the same thing in football this year. Jacas and Bailey are turning into stars before our eyes. Hightower, Bryant, and Williams are blossoming. Players like Tommy DeVito, Isaiah Adams, and Zy Chrysler are buying into the culture and performing at high levels.

And the defense! Well, the numbers speak for themselves.

The Future

Syndication: Stevens Point Journal Tork Mason / USA TODAY NETWORK

Basketball has had its success, winning Big Ten titles and earning No. 1 seeds in the tournament, but more importantly, it’s seeing that culture continue. Even with a whole new roster from where Underwood started, Illinois knows how to win and their own expectations are sky high.

Fans are more engaged and you also see that on the recruiting front. The caliber of players Illinois is getting is much higher than in the past and Illinois is out-recruiting its peers. Even with Frazier, Da’monte, Ayo, Kofi, and Giorgi gone, the expectations from the team have been maintained.

Time will tell if these new ‘croots will pan out, but the talent, at least on paper, is there.

This is where blowing out Wisconsin and the next two games against Iowa and Minnesota are so important. Not only do wins reinvigorate the fan base and improve team morale, Illinois now gets to tell its recruits that Illinois is here to win and not be the doormat of the Big Ten West.

Illinois is fighting Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota for the same recruits. Those programs have shown consistency in winning games and sending players to the NFL. Beating those teams shows that Illinois is here to stay.

Palcho said it best.

For Saturday, I really hope want the stadium to be packed. This team is on the rise and is here to be competitive. It would mean so much for Palcho and the rest of the guys that have been here for a while to run out to 50,000 fans instead of the 35,000 they are used to seeing.

Pack the damn stadium. Be loud. Beat Iowa. I-L-L.

P.S. If you are a student. This is a night game, you don’t get many of these. Don’t watch the game at Kams, Red Lion, or your friend's house. Get tickets to the game and pack Block I.