How much better was college basketball in 1989? Flyin’ Illini join us in yelling at cloud

Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill and Marcus Liberty remember a spectacular season and a golden era in the college game, when competition was ferocious because NBA-bound players stayed in school a lot longer than they do now.

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Point guard Steve Bardo shoots for the 1989 Illini.

Getty Images

We’ve done it before. We’re about to do it again.

The whole old-man-yelling-at-cloud bit, sadly enough.

Perhaps it’s all this business about being stuck at home, fraught with worry about our loved ones, ourselves, our planet, our economy, our jobs — oh, yeah, and sports — that has us feeling nostalgic for better times.

Times such as, say, a few weeks ago, when the tantalizing wonder of March Madness was merely an intoxicating whiff away.

And even more like, say, a few decades in the way-back machine, when college basketball — and especially the NCAA Tournament — was just plain head-and-shoulders above what it is now.

Roll those eyes all you want, kids. It doesn’t make it any less true.

Saturday was supposed to bring the first pair of Elite Eight games, with nets being cut down in Indianapolis and Los Angeles, respectively, as Midwest and West region champs celebrated punching their tickets to the Final Four in Atlanta.

Who knows? Maybe upstart Illinois — in the tournament for the first time since 2013 if not for the coronavirus outbreak — could’ve made it that far. The Illini were good enough to contend for a Big Ten regular-season title, though they came up a game shy of co-champs Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan State in the standings. But they had a big-shot maker and burgeoning superstar in sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, a monster at the rim in freshman 7-footer Kofi Cockburn and defense for days. Hopes were justifiably high.

Still?

“If they play us in a seven-game series, they don’t win a game,” said Kendall Gill, whose No. 13 orange jersey hangs from the rafters inside the State Farm Center in Champaign.

Gill’s “us” is, of course, the Flyin’ Illini, who reached the Final Four in 1989. It was a 31-5 team that fell short of what it believed was its championship destiny, but it also was a team that faced opponents that March the likes of which aren’t seen anymore.

We’re not taking any shots at the 2020 Illini here. To do so would be classless and unkind, not to mention completely unprovoked. It was a fine, exhilarating season for a team and program that sought validation in the most serious way and absolutely earned it.

But did Gill mention a hypothetical four-game sweep of the young pups? He did, and he isn’t wrong.

And not to get into the weeds, but the 37-2 Illini team that reached the national-title game in 2005 would’ve fallen pretty hard to the 1989 crew, too.

How do we know that? Because, well, look up. See that cloud? It’s not going to yell at itself.

Anyway, we brought three members of the Flyin’ Illini — Kenny Battle, Marcus Liberty and Gill — to this cloud fight. Each remembers a spectacular season, a golden era in the college game, when competition was ferocious because — and this here is the crux of the biscuit — NBA-bound players stayed in school a lot longer than they do now.

“That was probably the best tournament of college basketball ever,” Battle said. “You look team by team, and all the top-quality teams were loaded.”

Battle was a senior. Gill and Nick Anderson — widely regarded as the team’s best player — were juniors. Liberty, the most highly touted recruit in school history, was a sophomore sixth man at tournament time. They and point guard Stephen Bardo would play in a combined 39 NBA seasons.

Syracuse, which the Illini beat in the Elite Eight, was led by senior Sherman Douglas and junior Derrick Coleman and boasted six players who would play in a combined 42 NBA seasons. That was even more than Sweet 16 foe Louisville — only 30 NBA seasons — but fewer than Final Four foe Michigan, whose NBA number turned out to be a more-than-robust 51.

It was an upset when the Illini, who’d outclassed Michigan twice during the regular season, lost in Game 3 against the eventual national champs, a result that still stings older Illini fans to their cores. But let’s be real: Those Wolverines had senior Glen Rice (15 NBA seasons) and juniors Rumeal Robinson (six), Loy Vaught (11) and Terry Mills (11). Oh, and sophomore Sean Higgins (six), who had the winning offensive rebound and putback with a second left on the clock in Seattle.

The Wolverines were an All-Star team even in that era. With so much experience, they’d blow the doors off any of today’s collections of one-and-dones from Duke or Kentucky. And they — much like the Flyin’ Illini — certainly would have a significant edge over any of the current game’s veteran powers, considering “veteran” today means, broadly speaking, not having been deemed good enough to leave early for the NBA Draft.

“It was definitely different when I played,” Liberty said. “We had to understand the college game. Now, kids don’t understand as much, so college coaches are making adjustments to the kids. Back in the day, it was, ‘OK, we’ve got to develop those players because a lot of those players have bad habits I have to break.’ Coaches don’t have that time now.”

All three former Illini interviewed for this story were impressed — big-time — by the current squad. They want to make that clear.

“I like what [coach Brad] Underwood has brought to the program — toughness,” Liberty said. “They were tougher than a lot of the teams they played.”

“Ayo is going to do well at the next level,” Gill said.

“This was a team you really weren’t going to want to face in March because Kofi was playing well, the bench was playing well and guys had accepted their roles,” Battle said. “[The 1989 team] didn’t have a force like Kofi inside. But we’d have taught him how to dunk better, and he’d have enjoyed it.”

And about the aforementioned hypothetical best-of-seven series?

“You know what? It would be Illinois winning every game,” Battle said.

A very diplomatic answer. Don’t you believe him.

Gill doubts that Dosunmu, an All-Big Ten player this season, would’ve played close to starter’s minutes on the 1988-89 team.

“I don’t see him fitting because he doesn’t jump like we used to and dunk the ball,” Gill said.“He’s more a guy who can get through cracks.

“We had studs on that team and coming off the bench, too. College basketball was so tough then. Guys stayed around and got better every year. Marcus Liberty was the No. 1 player in the country, and he didn’t even start. You’re talking about freshmen and sophomores competing with guys who were juniors and seniors and guys who were pros.”

Regardless of all that, the 2020 tournament field might have been a particularly difficult one for the Illini to do much advancing. Though it was considered a wide-open field by most — no real jaw-dropping teams, talent-wise — it was something of a throwback.

Just look at the top-ranked teams making their way to a doomed Dance. Neither AP No. 1 Kansas nor No. 2 Gonzaga had a freshman among its top six scorers. Dayton’s marvelous sophomore, Obi Toppin, was the only underclassman in his team’s starting lineup. Baylor didn’t have a freshman who scored a point all season. San Diego State’s starting lineup was all upperclassmen.

Even one-and-done Kentucky had only one freshman, Tyrese Maxey, among its top seven scorers. And freshman-laden Duke was paying the price for its inexperience, ranked 11th.

ESPN’s bracketology had Illinois playing USC in the opening round. Three of the Trojans’ top four scorers were seniors. CBS Sports had the Illini starting off against a Cincinnati foe that would’ve been all seniors and juniors.

Experience counts more than a little. Consider that each of the last four national champions — Villanova in 2016, North Carolina in 2017, Villanova again in 2018 and Virginia last year — was old and grizzled, led by guys who truly had been there and done that.

And consider that the AP All-America team this season — seniors Markus Howard (Marquette), Myles Powell (Seton Hall) and Payton Pritchard (Oregon), junior Luka Garza (Iowa) and Toppin — included no freshmen for only the second time in seven years.

Experience counts. Did we mention that already?

“I had the opportunity to watch my team come into its own,” Battle said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

It’s nothing against the 2020 Illini, a terrific team. They just weren’t on the same level as the terrific teams that used to be.

Put that in your cloud and smoke it.

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