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Illinois head coach Brad Underwood yells to his team during the first half against Wisconsin.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood yells to his team during the first half against Wisconsin.
AP Photo/Andy Manis

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Why the next 10 months are the most important stretch in decades for Illinois

The Illini are struggling for relevancy locally and nationally. It’s possible that could change soon.

The next 10 months are Illinois basketball’s biggest in decades.

Forgive me Illinois fans if you’ve read and heard the opening line in some way, shape or form a time or two (or six or seven) over the years.

But this time it’s true.

First, we’ll zip through the negative quickly.

Illinois has gone six years without a NCAA Tournament appearance, four years without even cracking a Top 25 ranking and suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 41 years. As excited as Illinois fans can be about the young talent in the program, headed by the impactful freshmen seasons from Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, it’s still a team coming off a 12-21 season –– the most losses in program history.

Relevancy matters. And in today’s college basketball, especially when talking high-major programs, what quantifies relevancy more than anything are NCAA Tournament appearances and deep March. For recruits you can throw in a mix of churning out pros and you’re well on your way.

Thus, this is the closest the basketball program has come to thoroughly dipping into total irrelevancy in over four decades. The naysayers and haters would argue it’s happened.

Even when Illinois was hit with probation in the early 1990s and seemed to be hitting what was then considered rock bottom, the program didn’t go more than two years without a NCAA Tournament berth. Even during Bruce Weber’s final season which led to his firing and the five years of John Groce, Illinois still made a NCAA Tournament, won a game in the tournament and had only one losing season in those six years.

But a combined 61-73 the last four years, including 24-50 in the Big Ten, leads us back to why the next 10 months will be Illinois basketball’s biggest in decades.

And here are a half dozen reasons why that’s true.

Reason No. 1: Maximizing Ayo Dosunmu

While watching Meyers Leonard of the Portland Trail Blazers torch the Golden State Warriors in a NBA playoff game last month –– if you missed it the 7-footer went off for 25 points in the first half of a Western Conference Finals game and finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds –– it was pointed out that was the most points he had scored in any game since his high school days at Robinson.

Why that’s a big a big deal is this: Illinois never was able to maximize having a future NBA player on its roster.

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu drives against Ohio State.
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu drives against Ohio State.
AP Photo/Paul Vernon

No, Leonard isn’t some NBA star. But he was a first-round draft pick with difference-making size, athleticism and an impressive pedigree as a consensus top 35 player in the country coming out of high school.

Yet the nature of the beast in college basketball, especially with big men, is that many players bolt for the NBA early, maybe before they’re really ready and well before they were able to make a full impact at the college level. Unlike decades ago when college players waited until they were primed and ready for the NBA, the opportunity to develop in the pros while being paid is the norm. That was Meyers Leonard.

And though no fault of really anyone, Illinois was not able to ever truly reap the benefit of having a player like Leonard.

Leonard, a late-blooming talent in high school with a monster ceiling, averaged just 8.2 minutes a game as a freshman at Illinois. He followed it up with a very nice sophomore season in which he averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and nearly two blocks in 32 minutes a game. Just when he was turning the corner and set to make a leap into potential dominating college big man –– Poof! –– he was gone.

Remember that 2012-2013 Illinois team? The overachieving one led by Brandon Paul and coached by Groce? The one that captured a Maui Invite title in November, finished with 23 wins and won a game in the NCAA Tournament in Groce’s first season? Now imagine a ready-to-dominate Leonard on that team as a returning junior? How much better would that Illinois team have been with Leonard?

The Meyers Leonard history lesson is simply to show that Illinois is in position to fully take advantage of its next NBA draft pick in Dosunmu. The 6-5 point guard could have left for the NBA, kept his fingers crossed that he could sneak into the first round of what is considered to be one of the worst NBA drafts in history, and Illinois would again have missed out on getting the most out of a future pro.

Illinois gets Dosunmu for one more year after he put together a freshman season in which he averaged 13.8 points, four rebounds and 3.3 assists while playing 31 minutes a game. This is stating the obvious, but the return of Dosunmu for one more season was critical for the Illinois rebuild. Go make the most of his return.

Now it’s a matter of taking advantage of arguably the most talented Illini and certainly its highest profile player since Dee Brown left in 2006. Taking advantage of having the dynamic Dosunmu means playing itself off the bubble, winning 20-plus games, finishing in the top half of the rugged Big Ten and garnering headlines with a NCAA Tournament berth.

Because if you don’t? And the program misses the NCAA Tournament for a (gulp!) seventh straight year? And Dosunmu bolts for the NBA? And an eighth straight year without a NCAA bid is looming without Dosunmu? That leads you to start thinking … Well, you get the point.

Reason No. 2: The critical recruiting class of 2020

As it stands right now with Dosunmu likely headed to the NBA following next season, Illinois could ultimately have four scholarships to fill in the Class of 2020. Illinois just recently added to its Class of 2019 with little-known Belgium import Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, a 6-7 combo forward, who committed June 8. You would assume Illinois would take the “right” four high school recruits but, like every college program does these days, leave room available for one coveted transfer or grad transfer to add to the mix.

But know this: Recruiting changes the more distance there is from any type of success and as the sell of being new and different wears off. The recruiting, particularly the recruiting pitch, gets more and more difficult. We saw this with Groce and his staff.

Groce was the energy guy who had plenty to sell. He could sell what he did at Ohio and then what he did in his first season at Illinois. And like every coach taking over for a fired one, he could sell how things were going to be fresh and different. But the longer it went without a tournament appearance and then falling short in the recruitments of Quentin Snider, Demetrius Jackson, Cliff Alexander, Juwan Evans, Jalen Brunson and others, the tougher the sell became.

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Adam Hunger/AP Photo

Brad Underwood and his staff are entering year three of the rebuild. They had the “things are going to be different” selling point following the Groce firing. Underwood had the “look what I did at Stephen F. Austin” and the NCAA Tournament appearance at Oklahoma State as highlights when he rode into Champaign.

This is why this upcoming season –– and whatever prospects Illinois lands over the next 10 months –– is so pivotal. You need selling points. And if you’re going into year four without a tournament bid and without your best player (Dosunmu) returning, the sell becomes a bit hollow.

This next group Illinois brings in, quite frankly, needs to be the best of the four recruiting classes this staff will have brought in so far. No pressure there. But there are 10 months to do it.

With a couple of years to build the foundation and culture, establish relationships, perfect the pitch and be fully invested as Illini, it’s time to land the next wave to follow what has been a nice foundation-building group.

The bad news is Illinois doesn’t have a commitment yet for the Class of 2020. The good news is they are right there with a number of talented recruits and, more importantly, the staff showed it can find a monster piece hidden under a rock. Can Underwood and his staff unearth another Bezhanishvili? No one could have imagined the impact this under-recruited prospect would have on the Illinois program.

So when/if Illinois secures a commitment from a two-star or a three-star rather than a four-star or five-star, pause and think Bezhanishvili. Underwood has earned the benefit of the doubt with that one.

But Illinois is locked in on the top two prospects in the state –– Morgan Park’s Adam Miller and Young’s D.J. Steward –– and a bevy of out-of-state targets, including fast-rising 6-11 Ryan Kalkbrenner out of St. Louis, who they impressively identified and were in on earlier than everyone.

There are other big-time targets on the list, including Nimari Burnett, Cam’Ron Fletcher, Caleb Love, Donovan Johnson and others. But securing two or three consensus top 100 talents in this recruiting class, in year three, sets the table going forward, even with Dosunmu’s probable departure.

You stack enough quality recruiting classes on top of one another and you’re bound to be good, right?

Reason No. 3: A chance to further the identity

Say what you will about anything Illinois has done under Underwood. But no one can say he hasn’t established a clear identity. And this coming year is the perfect time to cement that identity by complementing it with on-the-court success.

Regardless of the wins and losses thus far, Underwood’s Illini are recognized as a team and program that gets after it, exudes toughness, plays with an intensity and, whether you like it or not, has established a certain defensive style and system that fits the program’s personality –– or at least what the head coach believes it should be. There have been minor changes and alterations here and there, but Underwood hasn’t wavered. He’s stuck with his approach through it all thus far.

There is something to be said for that and how it resonates. Basketball people –– from avid fans to opposing coaches to prospective recruits to high school and AAU coaches to the players who are a part of it and the media that talks about it –– know for certain what Illinois basketball is going to be about. They can see it and, as a result, something that really isn’t tangible actually is.

Underwood and his staff will continue to try and recruit to that ideal. There is no better time than now to do so. Look at us: This is how we play and we have success doing it. It’s time for that and the athletic pieces and experience is there to do so.

Reason No. 4: The biggest offseason development in years

One of the hallmarks of a great basketball “program” is individual player development. It’s underrated, really, and not talked about enough. It’s how and why certain programs who don’t recruit top 10 or top 15 recruiting classes still make regular NCAA Tournament appearances and crack Top 25 polls annually.

This will be a significant year –– again, year three for this coaching staff –– in seeing individual player improvement and growth. You can throw the strength program into this equation as well. Get them bigger, get them stronger.

Every coaching staff in America believes they develop their players. I have yet to hear any coach or staff say, “We really need to recruit at a super high level and get superior talent because we just don’t do a very good job of developing and making players better.”

The early signs are positive with Underwood and this staff.

Don’t underestimate the improvement of Illinois’ top two players, Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili, in just nine months on campus.

Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Yes, a lot of credit goes to the individual players as these two are ultra-gym rats and are tireless workers. But I don’t think people realize the jump Dosunmu made from the end of his senior year at Morgan Park to his freshman season at Illinois. The jump-shot itself was like night and day. Dosunmu was more impactful as a freshman than I expected –– and that’s coming from someone who watched him play for five years before he headed to Champaign.

And Bezhanishvili? Good Lord. One can only imagine the improvement he made from last June through the end of the season in March.

So it’s indeed exciting to think about the strides Dosunmu and the easy-to-love Bezhanishvili will make between March and this November.

But this season will be a very good barometer of how this staff develops players. Do Ayo and Giorgi make another significant jump? What growth will the other players in the program make, most notably the young players like Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones? How much can Trent Frazier mature as a player and add to his game in his third season? What can the staff do development wise with 6-10, 300-pound Kofi Cockburn in six months?

Again, it’s a monster offseason and imperative these improvements take place to enhance the opportunities for this team in 2019-2020.

Reason No. 5: A time to re-energize the fan base

It’s been awhile since Illinois entered a season with expectations. We’re talking legitimate expectations. Even with seven players on the roster who are either freshmen or sophomores, the expectations will be there for the 2019-2020 season. And that’s a good thing.

The true Illinois basketball fan is so stinking hungry for success.

The return of Dosunmu and Bezhanishvili is reason enough to get excited. That’s a monster tandem to build around.

Illinois fans badly want to watch a winner again.
AP Photo/Rick Danzl

Frazier, the scoring talent with occasional basketball hiccups, is a junior veteran set to surpass 1,000 career points early in the season. Hard-nosed guard Andres Feliz got his feet wet at the Division I level and by the end of the season was swimming in the deep end of the Big Ten. Freshman behemoth Cockburn brings desperately-needed front court depth and size. And while not certain, Illinois fans can hope the combination of Griffin and Jones can make an impact as sophomores.

On paper, that seems to be just enough talent to get the job done. And this wide-ranging job includes re-energizing the fan base.

There is no question the fan base and interest, to put it mildly, has stagnated. Well, these next 10 months are crucial in re-energizing a fan base that, quite frankly, hasn’t been through this much fandom pain since the 1970s. And that was before everything was so greatly magnified by TV, cable, sports websites, recruiting rankings and social media.

Reason No. 6: A chance to be relevant again

Back to relevancy, which was discussed roughly 1,800 words ago if you’re still reading.

Relevancy matters so much and in so many ways. If there is one abnormal adjective used to describe Illinois basketball now –– and never before –– during this string of six straight years without a tournament appearance its apathy. An apathetic audience sets in at some point.

The diehard fan knows but the average Illinois fan or basketball observer has forgotten where this program was for the better part of 30 or so years.

Here is a quick reminder of a stretch of 33 pretty glorious seasons spanning from the 1980-1981 season through the 2012-2013 season:

▪︎ 25 NCAA Tournament berths and two trips to the Final Four, including a 25-year stretch from 1983 through 2007 in which Illinois made the NCAA Tournament in 21 of the 25 seasons. For the most part a NCAA Tournament bid was a foregone conclusion at Illinois for a quarter of a century.

▪︎ An average of 22 wins a year, including just three losing seasons in 33 years.

▪︎ 10-plus Big Ten wins a season 25 out of 33 years –– and only six seasons below .500 in Big Ten play during that time.

▪︎ Ranked in the AP poll in 25 of those 33 seasons.

That’s relevancy. And on a national stage. For the better part of three-plus decades.

Illinois needs to make itself relevant again. Not with a newly refurbished arena, a large increase in pay for the coaching staff or plans to do a major renovation to the basketball practice facility. Those are all great and needed. But it needs to be relevant again in arenas, with wins and success and steer clear of the abyss. We’re talking now. In the next 10 months. It’s there for them.

There needs to be college basketball conversation that includes Illinois. The Chicago media needs to care again. Basketball people need to have a reason to talk Illinois basketball in gyms across the state and city this winter.

There needs to be important games played in January and February. NCAA Tournament hopes for Illinois have been dashed by December the past two seasons.

And, most importantly, there needs to be a camera at Ubben on Selection Sunday with the players and coaches in a row of chairs and Illini personnel, boosters and fans behind them, waiting (not hoping) for Greg Gumbel to say something like, “Playing in Omaha as the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Regional will be the Fighting Illini. Illinois returns to the tournament for the first time since 2013.”

And then the CBS camera locks in on Giorgi doing some dance with a big smile.

All of that is relevancy. All of that helps erase some of the bitterness of the past few seasons. All of that is a boon to recruiting and sets the tone for future classes in 2021 and 2022. All of that is confirmation that, yes indeed, Illinois basketball is clearly headed in the right direction and far away from apathy.

And all of that is at stake over the next 10 months.

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