Where does Illinois hoops program rank?

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By Joe Henricksen

I got to thinking and wanted to delve into this, so …

There has been a whole lot of discussion about where the Illinois basketball program ranks among the 300-plus programs in the country. It’s been in the conversation of late as a result of the coaching search to replace Bruce Weber. And for whatever reason, the number 15 has been singled out as this magical, powerful number as it relates to Illinois basketball and its validity, as in a “top 15 program nationally.”

So where does it rank?

The factors are endless–and change over the years–when it comes to ranking the top college basketball programs. You have to balance history and current success. There is perception, which hinges so much on NCAA Tournament appearances, long tournament runs, Final Four trips, conference affiliation and championships, television coverage, coaching star power and player development–i.e. NBA draft picks. There are internal factors, including facilities, resources, recruiting base and fan interest.

The Illinois program can hold its own in many of these categories. That’s what should make the program enticing to any prospective coach that athletic director Mike Thomas is trying to convince to take over the basketball program. But it should never be about trying to “convince” a coach to take a job when you’re talking a program that is among the top 15 college programs.

While the Hoops Report hardly conducted a full, thorough survey on the matter, it has posed the question to many college coaches in recent weeks. In addition, a few high school basketball coaches in Illinois, just to get a perspective of what their perception is of the program, were polled. The question was simple: When you combine history and current success, along with potential, is Illinois one of the top 15 programs in the country? Yes or no. The results:

34 college coaches (28 assistants, 6 head coaches)

Yes: 2

No: 32

15 Illinois high school coaches

Yes: 4

No: 11

The next question was is it among the top 30 programs? And the results:

34 college coaches (28 assistants, 6 head coaches)

Yes: 34

No: 0

15 Illinois high school coaches

Yes: 12

No: 3

Illinois can boast about the history, tradition and throw around winning percentages and tournament appearances over the last 100 years, but the kids the coaches are recruiting don’t care all that much about history. It’s more about what have you done for me lately? Kids in Illinois today can still hang on to that tremendous 2005 Final Four team, but it’s fading fast among teenagers as there have been just two NCAA Tournament wins since.

And when it comes to recruiting, an underrated aspect of recruiting success at the highest level and what prospects care about is how many pros the school churns out. Nearly every prospect believes they are NBA-bound in today’s culture, even if 98 percent of them have zero shot of it happening.

“You often just have to play along with the kids and their people when they talk about the NBA as you recruit them,” says one high-major assistant coach.

“It’s amazing how big of a sell it is and advantage when you have pros playing every night in the NBA that came from your program,” says another high-major coach.

Basically, it’s free advertising for a college basketball program while showing potential recruits, “Yes, we pump out NBA players!” You better believe it’s a huge deal for UConn to have Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Caron Butler, Kemba Walker, Charlie Villanueva, Rip Hamilton, Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien playing in the NBA.

“It’s a huge plus to even have old greats who still resonate with kids and who they can still connect with today, even if they aren’t in the NBA,” says a high-major assistant. “You better believe we use that when recruiting against another program.”

Adds another mid-major coach, “We’re a mid-major program and even we have to convince kids they can make it to the league if they come to a mid-major program, even though the reality is the kid is going to be a nice, but not great mid-major player.”

While the NBA isn’t overflowing with Michigan State players, there are still a few, but a figure like Magic Johnson is still a phenomenal ambassador for Sparty to this day. And a Georgetown can throw out retired NBA legends like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson with its current collection of players in the league.

Which brings us back to Illinois. Currently, there are just two players from Illinois playing in the NBA–a superstar in Deron Williams and career role player, holding-on-as-long-as-he-can Brian Cook. The lack of NBA talent out of the Illinois program is startling in comparison to programs you would consider “top 15” in the country.

Consider this: since Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson went on to stellar NBA careers from the Flying Illini days in the late 1980s, the only Illinois players who have even stuck in the NBA are Williams, Cook and Luther Head. That’s one legit, bonafide starting NBA player in more than 20 years.

While losing current sophomore Meyers Leonard would be a huge loss to next year’s team, the program will at least get a charge from putting another player in the NBA.

A program like Indiana hasn’t exactly pumped out NBA players, but it’s still one that produced Isiah Thomas, featured a basketball icon in Bobby Knight, has five national championships and has that prestige.

Where does the Hoops Report rank the Illinois program? No, it’s not a top 15 job, but it has always believed Illinois is clearly one of the top 10 percent of college coaching jobs and programs in the country, and it’s easy to argue a top 25 program. And what is wrong with that? Nothing. Yet for some reason people have been getting a little bent out of shape about it all.

So what are the top college basketball programs? While it’s true a list like this can be somewhat cyclical, this list broke down almost perfectly between the top 15 and the next 15.

This first list of college programs are the ones the Hoops Report clearly places in elite status, a group of 15 that you can’t argue. This list is in alphabetical order. If you’re going to argue any of these, don’t come to my “Ranking College Programs Party” and just wait for the next list to unfold to debate. These are the iron-clad programs throughout the country, with national titles, strong conference affiliation, history, resources, current success, deep NCAA Tournament runs, players drafted by the NBA and All-Americans.

The Top 15

Arizona

Connecticut

Duke

Florida

Georgetown

Indiana

Louisville

Kansas

Kentucky

Michigan State

North Carolina

Ohio State

Syracuse

Texas

UCLA

OK, for argument sake, I tried to pick out the one or two programs people may possibly take issue with and disagree in that it is in the untouchable top 15: Texas and Indiana. Really, it’s not even close.

The Longhorns have a monstrous athletic budget, along with a campus life in Austin that is pretty darn special and a very impressive recruiting base in talent-filled Texas. On the basketball side of things, Texas went to a Final Four and three Elite Eights in the last decade while going to 14 straight NCAA Tournaments and 18 trips in the last 19 years. Rick Barnes has averaged just under 25 wins a year in 14 seasons, while finishing the season ranked among the top 25 in 11 of 14 seasons. And how about pros? Kevin Durant is one of the greatest players on the planet. There is LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, T.J. Ford, Daniel Gibson, Royal Ivey, Tristan Thompson and Chris Mihm to name a few. The Longhorns belong in the untouchable 14. There is no debate.

And the only reason Indiana is even debatable is the struggles of the program just prior to this season. But we’re talking five national titles, history, passion and a fan base that is tremendous. Plus, Tom Crean has the Hoosiers rolling again, in the Sweet 16 and with another loaded recruiting class coming in next fall.

Then you get into the second-tier progams at the high-major level. Here is where fans of respective schools can debate, start disagreeing and get the guns ready to fire off at those that doubt their program. But debate is healthy. And it would be difficult to get a consensus on the next 15 in the NCAA basketball pecking order.

While the Hoops Report can lock in the top 15 programs pretty easily, it can also clearly separate the next 15 programs from the remaining 300 in NCAA Division I. Here we can go on and on and debate all day long where each of these programs falls between No. 16 and No. 30. Where would the Hoops Report place the current Illinois program? Probably in that 20-25 range, right where the majority of the 34 college coaches polled placed the Illinois program.

The Next 15 (listed alphabetically)

Arkansas

Cincinnati

Illinois

Gonzaga

Marquette

Maryland

Missouri

Memphis

Michigan

Oklahoma State

Pitt

Purdue

Villanova

Wisconsin

Xavier

The omissions

There are a couple of programs where fan bases could get testy about not being among the top 30, such as those proud ACC fans supporting North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. But personally, the Hoops Report has always believed N.C. State was an overrated program. For starters, you never want to be stuck in the back yard of Duke and North Carolina. “Hey, kid. Don’t look over there to the northeast. Those are our two conference rivals just miles away and two of the most storied programs in all of sports. If they don’t want you, we’ll take you.” But more than that, this program has done little to nothing since coach Jim Valvano left in 1990. This year’s Sweet 16 run is just the second time the program has advanced past the opening weekend of tournament since the late 1980s.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, has very little history. The program didn’t do a thing until coach Bobby Cremins took over in the 1980s. And recently, the Yellowjackets have just five NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 16 years.

And the 10 All-Underrated Programs

Butler

Creighton

Dayton

Florida State

New Mexico

San Diego State

Texas A&M

UNLV

Virginia Commonwealth

Wichita State

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