It’s almost like the whole thing never even happened.
Illinois’ best basketball season in a decade and a half, that is.
Has it really been only a month and change since the Illini took the court as a No. 1 seed against Loyola in the second round of the NCAA Tournament? Since then, they’ve staged one heck of a disappearing act. That’s not a commentary on their performance against the Ramblers, though the loss was a major upset and coach Brad Underwood’s team didn’t exactly meet the moment with a sustained roar. It’s not even a criticism at all, really.
It’s just that the Illini have managed to go — quickly and, if your attention has been awash in other sports lately, quietly — from championship contender to who knows what? From the catbird seat to a sort of chaos. From classically constructed to almost unrecognizable.
Maybe this is just what happens in 2021, when players and coaches come and go like never before.
‘‘It’s about continuing to build the best roster you can,’’ Underwood told reporters last week. ‘‘It’s our new culture. It’s our new world.’’
But just get a load of all that has been swirling around All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu’s expected announcement April 6 that he was entering the NBA Draft.
After starting all 31 games as a freshman, guard Adam Miller — like Dosunmu, a major recruit out of Morgan Park — announced April 1 that he was entering the transfer portal. Why? Why not? Everybody who’s anybody these days is on the move. All it takes is a voice in your ear and a willingness to change sweatpants.
On April 18, star center Kofi Cockburn wrote on Twitter, ‘‘The NBA has been a life-long dream of mine and I am ready to go to the next level and see what’s in store for me.’’ It’s possible, though, that Cockburn — still working out in Champaign, reportedly without having hired an agent — will elect instead to stay put. That’s what teammate Trent Frazier did a couple of days later after testing the NBA waters, taking advantage of an extra season available to all seniors after a pandemic season. It’s what fellow veteran guard Da’Monte Williams might or might not do himself. Veteran big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili, on the other hand, opted to turn pro and meant it.
Meanwhile, Underwood has more bowls in the air than halftime act Red Panda. Illinois picked up Utah sharpshooter Alfonso Plummer and Florida big Omar Payne through the transfer portal. It must figure out what to do with former transfer guard Austin Hutcherson, who continues to work his way back from injury and hasn’t played in a couple of years. It has Luke Goode and R.J. Melendez headlining a top-four recruiting class in the Big Ten and several others still on scholarship who filled varying roles last season.
Without Cockburn, Illinois likely will run-and-gun and shoot more three-pointers than just about anybody in 2021-22. Re-enter an unstoppable pure back-to-the-basket scorer into the mix, though, and the entire look changes.
The Illini could have as many as five or six new faces in their rotation, and some of them might not even be on our radar yet. That’s because two of the main architects of Illinois’ success — assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman — might be on the move themselves and even taking some Illini players and/or recruits with them.
Antigua delivered Cockburn and point guard Andre Curbelo — potentially the next All-American player in the program — and led the way on Plummer and Melendez. Coleman was the man on the Dosunmu and Miller fronts and is Underwood’s biggest ‘‘in’’ to Chicago. Both are reportedly under heavy pressure from Kentucky’s John Calipari to swap their Illini gear for Wildcats gear.
And then what? Underwood could find himself scrambling for assistants and diving back into the transfer portal with extreme urgency.
‘‘We’re in a great place, let’s put it that way,’’ Underwood said. ‘‘We’re in a really, really good place.’’
But it’s impossible to know that at this point. Who’s going, who’s coming, how disparate pieces will fit together — an absence of answers equals quite a state of flux.
Justin Fields is already the one who got away. Just ask any fan of the Georgia Bulldogs.
That NFL teams saw how the 6-3, 228-pound quarterback performed after transferring to Ohio State and still might allow him to be the first-round QB who slips on draft night is sad, silly and, of course, predictable. There’s something about being the best player on the field in a giant college game that just seems to repel pro talent evaluators.
Come on, Bears. Move up and get this guy if you can.
The tallest tasks for BYU’s Zach Wilson last season were to go up against Boise State and Coastal Carolina. Alabama’s Mac Jones might as well have had lawn furniture in the backfield, as seldom as he was pressured (let alone hit). Trey Lance? We’re only guessing he can do the things Fields clearly has demonstrated he can do.
Just look at the College Football Playoff victory against Clemson. Fields took the rib shot heard ’round the world, kept standing — and getting hit — and threw for six touchdowns against the mighty Tigers. It was jaw-dropping and magnificent.
Don’t let him get away again.
• Now that the Cubs successfully have erased Zach Davies’ ability to pitch, are they ready to sneak him back into the Brewers’ rotation?
• No way D-backs lefty Madison Bumgarner deserves credit for a no-hitter for allowing no hits in a seven-inning game. I don’t recall anybody throwing me a parade for peaking in high school.
• Just wait until a pitcher takes a perfect game into the 10th inning and inherits a runner on second base. Holy controversy.