Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
Let’s try to unpack the evolving landscape of college athletics, the NCAA and specifically the changes in the Big Ten. The word “try” was chosen with prejudice.
After I make an attempt to make some sense of the brave new world, I’ll set the stage for how this benefits the Illini and Illinois fans in the two sports that caused all this movement in the first place: football and men’s basketball.
I’m not sure how anyone can put into words, with any sort of simplicity or specificity, how unrealistic and just how seismic the recent shift in conference alignment would have been just a few years ago.
A Richter Scale is not a large enough tool to measure these new circumstances.
The Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies will be joining the Big Ten (along with USC and UCLA) in the 2023-24 school year as a full member. With Arizona, Arizona State and Utah bolting for the Big 12, the PAC-12 will be down to just four member schools at the end of this upcoming academic year.
Here’s a breakdown of the history your Fighting Illini has with Oregon and Washington.
Perhaps the single greatest character in movie history is Don Vito Corleone, from “The Godfather” franchise. Although I’m not making a direct comparison to the NCAA and its conference partners to the mafia, I’m also not not making a comparison.
The scene I’m about to reference is after Sonny Corleone is killed on the causeway toward the end of “Godfather: Part I.”
The Godfather, Don Vito, calls a meeting of the heads of the Five Families to discuss how they will proceed into the future, even splitting up the business by geography and sector. Vito is trying to avoid an all-out war. He wants to push business forward.
He asks a very simple question, and one that applies to this situation.
La cosa nostra loosely interprets to “this thing of ours.” It no longer applies to the Big Ten.
This thing of ours has now become “why are we playing Rutgers and UCLA in back-to-back conference games.”
At least the Big Ten is standing up at the table and laying claim to a different borough, rather than waiting along the side of rock road waiting to get “taken care of,” getting robbed of its fresh cannoli in the process.
Josh Whitman and his fellow ADs in the current Big Ten have to feel proud they have ensured success of their conference into the immediate future, and beyond.
It’s an admirable accomplishment, even with the cost of tradition and regional rivalries being thrown into the Hudson River, wrapped in an old throw rug.
It makes no logical sense whatsoever. Much like Vito and the Five Families, it’s all about keeping business pointing up, without interruption, let alone a hesitation.
The Big Ten is expected to approve Oregon and Washington as new members, barely 14 months after it welcomed UCLA and USC beginning in 2024.— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) August 4, 2023
The nation's oldest athletics conference will have 18 members and span from coast to coast. pic.twitter.com/r5KkUi0DNx
Take a look at the above tweet’s map of the future Big Ten and tell me where I’m telling lies.
Here are the benefits for Bret Bielema and the football program.
Beyond the obvious benefit of new and improved conference games, Bielema will now be able to till up fertile soil in new recruiting areas that the Illini had no reason to farm in the past.
It’s no secret that Bielema can “outkick his coverage,” so to speak.
He has been able to lock down recruits from avenues outside of the normal pipeline. Most recently, Bielema plucked a 4-star running back out of Arizona (Ca’Lil Valentine) over some traditional SEC & Big 12 programs (Oklahoma, Arizona). (Get the joke?)
In the future, Bielema snagging a player of Valentine’s profile will not be an outlier or anomaly, but business as usual.
I think there are three distinct advantages moving forward:
- Recruiting pipeline expansion, which I will highlight below.
- Showcasing truly how widespread and pervasive the Illini alumni network and fanbase is around the country. Recruits will take notice.
- These new moves solidify Bielema’s desire to make Illinois his last stop. He remains in a premier conference, with the Big Ten’s place in the overall landscape improving dramatically.
Let’s unpack that first point now.
Bielema has a well-built pipeline for position groups readily available in the Midwest. Linemen on both sides of the ball, along with tight ends and running backs can mostly be gathered up in the surrounding states to Illinois that comprise the “Original Big Ten.”
Las Angeles and Seattle will now be ripe for the picking with skill position players (wide receivers and quarterbacks) who would not give the Illini a second look before this new realignment.
Why would they?
A school from the Midwest that hasn’t been good in decades is not an attractive place for a flashier kid from LA or SeaTac. At least, not before those schools played in the same conference.
It also doesn’t hurt that one such kid, Devon Witherspoon, was drafted No. 5 overall in April’s NFL draft to, you guessed it, the Seattle Seahawks.
Bielema has more arrows in the quiver to strengthen and quicken the massive rebuild he is already ahead of schedule on at Illinois.
Here are the benefits for Brad Underwood and men’s basketball.
Basketball and football are different animals. Underwood is not only further along in his rebuild of that program than Bielema is across the street, he had a lengthy head start chronologically, philosophically and realistically.
Underwood has been marvelous lifting Illinois from an also-ran afterthought into a burgeoning power in the conference. He reloads and refuels.
His team this year is going to shock people with size, maturity and skill.
Who’s going to play the point guard? We’ll find out soon enough. That rampant speculation surely beats “can Illinois make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years” that was real-life not that long after Underwood arrived.
Light years ahead of when he got to Illinois, and seemingly moving at light speed in the portal and on the recruiting trail.
I think there are three distinct advantages moving forward:
- Expansion of the recruiting footprint, much like football. The door could be cracked for some potential one-and-done players from LA and its surrounding area.
- With continued aggressive non-conference scheduling, Underwood can prepare his team further for success in March. UCLA and Oregon are especially great for this factor.
- Underwood and his staff will play well in the living rooms around California and Washington state. The team leader is from California, in Coleman Hawkins. The success Hawkins is enjoying now will lead to future success on the trail.
Now that I’ve laid out my case for the benefits of each program, please take The Scientific Poll to let your voice be heard.
The additions to the Big Ten moving forward will provide Illinois with which of the following?
This poll is closed
Negligible benefit. Things will remain status quo.
Some benefit. It will be better than it was.
I think it will be much better overall, but Illinois will remain in its current place in the "New Big Ten."
This is a real opportunity for Illinois to move up the food chain and become a national program in the next 5+ years.
I hate the expansion. I want the original Big Ten back.
Changes are here to stay and continue into the future. Embrace it. It’s the only way forward.
This is Illinois football. This is Illinois basketball. This is the new Big Ten.