Happy Sunday, Illini Nation!
We’ve had well-over a week to digest the ugly Round 1 loss in the NCAA Tournament to Arkansas. Another NCAA Tournament, another double-digit loss for the Illini.
As the current edition of the 2023 NCAA Tournament plays out on TV screens across Illinois Land, I’d like to use my time and space this week for a few callouts and observations.
The first two trips to the Big Dance for Illinois head coach Brad Underwood resulted in beatdowns by Loyola Chicago and Houston. Here’s BU during the 13-point loss to Loyola in 2021.
Illini fans rationalize the losses, after nearly two decades of tourney dormancy and coaching malfeasance.
Common Illinois Fan Folklore states that “every team that beats Illinois goes on a run in the tournament.” This statement, or ones like it, serve a dual purpose.
- 2021: Loyola Chicago beats Illinois 71-58 in the Round of 32, and loses the next game to #12 Oregon State by seven, 65-58. Loyola’s 71 points against Illinois was unusual. Zero more wins.
- 2022: Houston beasts Illinois 68-53 in Round of 32. Houston then beats #1 Arizona by 12 to advance to the regional final. Houston lost to Villanova 50-44 in a grown man slugfest. One more win.
- 2023: Arkansas beats Illinois by 10 and escapes #1 Kansas 72-71 without Bill Self on the sidelines. UConn blasted Arkansas by 23 in the Sweet 16, which does not seem to be reprehensible given the way UConn destroyed Gonzaga in the regional final. One more win.
The obvious first utility is a soothing mechanism, one that rationalizes the need to masquerade excuses as logical reasoning why the team in orange cannot get the job done. This transposition of fact and fiction is a long-time practice of Illini fans around the country.
The second reason this kind of statement is made speaks to the sedimentary standards, eroded from the shorelines of proficiency and success, with no head coach able to deliver representative standards in the tournament.
When the team you root for does not get the job done on a repeated basis, it becomes an annual tradition to always talk about how the subsequent season will be the one to bear the low-hanging fruit, and even some unexpected moments: Sweet 16 success, a new T-shirt with a Final Four logo on it and maybe even a buzzer beater or two.
“There’s always next year.”
If you take a quick look on the Twitter, or the internet in general, you can easily locate an abundance of whodunnit articles, as writers and fans look for a scape goat, be it a specific individual or a group of under-performing players.
My colleague, The One and Only Pleas Honeywood, takes a look at the offseason after the loss to Arkansas.
Typically the fault lay somewhere in between, fixed in a gray area. Success lay in the same gray area. It could be hot shooting or a steak of ball-bouncing luck. Tournament success can come down to a list of intangibles that are impossible to quantify.
Early and often seems to be the way to sustained tournament success.
If we take a look at the coaches and programs still left in 2023, it’s eye-opening how important early-tenure success is for a head coach and/or program in the tournament.
Here is the list of programs to make the Elite 8, and how the coach’s tenure directly compares to Underwood’s in length.
Average length of time at program: 3.8 years
- #2 Texas: Rodney Terry (interim) is in his first year at the helm, taking over for the fired Chris Beard due to off-the-court issues. This is year two for the Beard Program in Austin. Texas hadn’t made the Elite 8 in 15 years.
- #3 Kansas State: Jerome Tang (1st year). Kansas State had won 34 games the previous three years combined with Bruce Weber at the helm.
- #4 UConn: Dan Hurley (5th). First Sweet 16 or better for Hurley in Storrs. After running through the entire region, UConn is back in the Final Four and looking for its fifth Championship since 1999. Hurley would be the third head coach to win a title in the programs history.
- #9 FAU: Dusty May (5th). First-ever wins for the program in the tournament. After besting Kansas State in a thriller, the Owls are off to meet the winner of the San Diego/Creighton game in the Final Four!
- #5 San Diego State: Brian Dutcher (6th). Into the Elite 8, at least. Even though the original bricks to the program were laid by Steve Fisher, Dutcher has solidified himself as man in charge.
Analyzing length the coach has been at a program is not a fool’s errand. It puts proper context around time frames and eliminates the built-in excuses. It could easily be argued that Illinois is “as good or a better job” than at least six of these programs, with UConn and Gonzaga being obvious exceptions.
Jim Larrenega is in his third Sweet 16 as the coach at Miami, and is now in his second-straight Elite 8. He has been at Miami for 12 years. Everyone knows the resume of Mark Few at Gonzaga, who is now in his 24th season as the head coach of the Zags. Few has two Final Fours and 11 Sweet 16’s on his resume.
The lone exception of the Elite 8 schools is Greg McDermott at Creighton. He is in his 13th season at the school, making his first Elite 8 in 2023. McDermott made his first Sweet 16 in 2021, his 11th year at the school.
Larrenega made the Sweet 16 in his second year at Miami and Few made it his first two years in Spokane.
Excluding McDermott, the average number of seasons to get to a Sweet 16 for the other seven coaches: 3.1 years.
If it’s going to happen often, it usually happens early.
It hasn’t happened early in Champaign for Underwood. This will be his fifth campaign “post-rebuild.”
It’s time for Underwood to show some success in the tournament next year. Underwood isn’t one to make excuses, and it likely will fall on deaf ears at this point.
What will you determine as a successful 2023-24 Illinois basketball season?
This poll is closed
Big Ten Title/BTT Title
Sweet 16 or better
5th-straight NCAA Tournament (incl. 2019-20 COVID season)
This is Illinois basketball.