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Illinois won’t exorcise demons vs. Kansas, but a win would be fun

Bill Self has avoided Champaign since his departure. It’s not why you may think.

What could have been in Champaign.
Chicago Tribune

It seems like nearly every fanbase in America claims to have suffered more misfortune, neglect and dark times than the average group of supporters.

Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes it’s just flat out complaining. Usually it’s in between, in the gray area.

Blue Blood fan bases bemoan a short period of ineptitude has infringed on their rights to their rightful place at the top. See: UNC missed the tournament in 2023 after being ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Tipoff
Hubert Davis at ACC Media Day. I thought he was elite on College GameDay.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports


They don’t seem to mention that Hubert Davis almost won the national championship in Year 1, taking the upstart Tar Heels all the way to the National Championship Game, against Kansas.

And Bill Self.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four National Championship-Kansas vs North Carolina
Self is all smiles after his second Natty in Lawrence. Why wouldn’t he be?
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the most ironic development for Illinois fans, these two schools, and this one coach, changed the course of Illinois basketball trajectory forever. Much like a “score” is 20 years in the 1800s, “forever” could be 20 years in 2023.

When it comes to Illinois football and men’s basketball, few fanbases, if any, can lay claim to more ineptitude and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. You don’t need an eidetic memory to come up with an example.

It happened five days ago at Memorial Stadium. Another chapter and verse, same as the first.

In an obvious layer of irony, when Hubert Davis and the Heels lost to Self and the Jayhawks in 2022, it equaled the pinnacle of Illinois hoops. The National Championship Game is as far as Illinois basketball has ever been.

It will be a footnote in the history of North Carolina. It’s not good enough. It usually isn’t.

Illinois fans, and those like it, will utter phrases similar to “it must be nice” to have that luxury. Much like a jealous friend or former classmate at a high school reunion, “it must be nice” is not a show of authentic appreciation. It never is.

Trust me, 100%. It is better than nice, it’s ideal and sought after. That’s where the jealousy is borne. It always is.

When Maui Strong was announced, I wrote in detail about the success that Self has had since he departed Illinois. It reads like a fiction novel. It seems like there’s no way it is real.

It is.

Bill Self doesn’t fit the idiom of “the one that got away.” He embodies it. This isn’t your high school sweetheart dumped you on prom night for the quarterback from the expensive side of town.

Margot Robbie poses for a pic, much like Bill Self calls plays on the sideline. Beautiful.

Margot Robbie ghosted you six weeks after you got engaged. Most people would never get past that. I know I wouldn’t, much like I have really gotten past Self departing for Kansas.

I went through the five stages of grief, with denial taking several years, if not an entire decade. As Kansas won Big 12 title after Big 12 title year after year, Illinois fluttered and floundered, going through head coaches like soft serve ice cream cones.

Here are the three reasons that this game will not exercise any demons for Illinois fans. Debate welcome in the comments.

Illinois v Arkansas
Brad Underwood joins the debate.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Let’s put the suitcase on the bed and unpack it.

  • Self is bringing the No. 1 team in the AP Poll to Champaign.
  • It’s an exhibition game. This would be different if it was the National Championship Game. It’s not.
  • You will probably end up being thankful that Self ever came here in the first place, because his recruiting led to arguably the best team in Illinois history. Feelings are hard to rationalize.

The one and only way that any demons are going to be exorcised is Illinois basketball winning a national championship. It’s obvious the program would already have at least one had Self stayed. At least one.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this column.

Remember the part about UNC’s loss to Kansas being a footnote? That’s the entire point of all of this. It is the sole reason that Self left Illinois for Kansas in the first place.

Kansas is a Blue Blood, in the purest sense. Illinois, while having a great and historic program, is nowhere near having blue hues.

Self made the decision not because of who Illinois is not, but for who Kansas is. And was at the time.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Practice Day - Des Moines
BU last spring. His team is picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten in 2023-24,
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The man lost in the shuffle of all of this is Brad Underwood. He came to a program that was arguably the worst in the Big Ten for a decade. Bruce Weber had been fired, along with John Groce.

Underwood has brought this program back from the depths of hell, winning one Big Ten Championship (really two), and getting the program ranked in the preseason Top 25 for four consecutive years, a feat never accomplished in the history of the program.

Illinois has a great coach. He’s not Bill Self. But, hardly anyone is.

In fact, no one is.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for me personally to go back to a place that, to be quite honest, I’ve avoided going to for many years,” Self said.

Instead of looking to exorcise any demons on Sunday, enjoy the game and welcome back the greatest sport in America.

Boo as loud as you can at Self and the lovable Hunter Dickinson, if that is your thing. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a poor sport. It makes you a fan, and a human being.

Grief is a wild thing.