A New Decade

The record books are complete.

The "teens" are a wrap. It will go down as the worst decade for Illini basketball since the 1970s. It’s finished. This coming season ends in 2020, which means those results, just like the year 2000, will be grouped with the next decade.

What happened in the 2010s? Two NCAA Tournament appearances, two wins. We beat UNLV in 2011 and Colorado in 2013… and that’s it. An entire decade without a Sweet 16.

Illinois basketball did this. The team that went to 21 NCAA Tournaments in 25 years from 1983 through 2007 somehow went to two this last decade.

Two.

Personally, I always group things by decade. I tell people all the time how I was raised on Illini basketball in the ’80s. I look at all the decades that way. Here’s my normal response.

1980s? Obviously you think about the Flyin’ Illini in 1989. But that decade had so much more. Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters would have been in the Final Four if the Elite Eight game hadn’t been a home game for Kentucky. Because of Austin Peay, the team before the Flyin’ Illini doesn’t get enough respect, but I’ll always hold Kenny Norman as my favorite Illini player of all time. Those were great teams. And, seemingly always at least in the Sweet 16.

1990s? Obviously your thoughts drift to Bruce Pearl and the NCAA sanctions. We entered that decade coming off a Final Four, fell to miserable depths in only two years because of the NCAA sanctions, and then the rest of the decade was spent climbing our way back. That decade ended much like this one. A team that was sub-.500 in 1999 but expectations were through the roof for 2000.

2000s? That’s easy. 90 seconds from a national title in 2005. All of that building — the highs (Elite Eight in 2001), the lows (the stupid Notre Dame game in 2003), and then a No. 1 ranking and what should have been a national title. 90 seconds away. If you drew a line from 1999 to 2008, it would look like a mountain. Steady climb from 1999 all the way to 2005. And then a steady decline all the way down to 2008’s 16-19 record. Which we thought was the low point.

2010s? I still struggle to put together how we’ll look at the 2010s. It has to be the Bruce Weber pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall. And then all the king’s Groces and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. To make matters worse, the decade ended with a 14-18 season followed by a 12-21 season. Go back to that line drawn since 1999 and if we thought 2008 was the low point, well, despite three blips in 2009, 2011, and 2013, the line kept going down and down. And now it’s at its lowest point since Lou Henson’s third season in 1978, the fifth consecutive bottom-four-of-the-Big Ten finish.

A great decade, a building-back-from-the-sanctions decade, an amazing decade, and then total failure. Illinois basketball, a once-proud program, now has the seventh-longest Tourney-less streak of all the high major conference teams. The 2010s will forever be remembered as the "worst of times" portion of the Dickens quote.

But now we’re entering a new decade. We flip over to the Roaring ’20s in 57 days. By the time the next Selection Sunday rolls around, we’ll be tabulating Illini basketball seasons for a new decade. And at least for now, before the ball is tipped, it looks like the new decade will be kind.

Can we really say that, though? We’ve entered the "others receiving votes" portion of the polls, and Arizona is ranked, which means that if we beat Arizona on Sunday, we’ll be ranked six days from now. I’ll repeat that since I just woke you up.

The last poll where Illinois was ranked came out on December 1, 2014. Illinois had beaten Indiana State and Baylor in the Vegas Invitational and the Illini entered the poll at number 24. Illinois then lost to Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, fell out of the next poll, and haven’t returned since. If Illinois beats Nicholls State tonight, beats Grand Canyon on Friday night, and beats Arizona (currently ranked 21st) on Sunday, the University Of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team will likely be ranked next Monday.

And it isn’t even the next decade yet.

Now, the likelihood of a 3-0 start is slim. This is still a road game at a ranked team in the first week of the season. And Friday night at Grand Canyon is no picnic, either. We could easily find ourselves 1-2 on Monday. We’ll talk about that later, too.

But as we begin this preview, we need to note that the 2010s are dead and we’re now attempting to turn the corner in the 2020s. We somehow became Same Old Sorry Illinois this last decade, and we need to find our swagger again.

And as I look over the roster… I think I see it? I mean, that schedule poster photo with Giorgi and Ayo and Trent — you can see it, can’t you? Doesn’t it feel like a thing that’s finally going to happen?

I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll have plenty of time to get to all of that. For now, let’s have Tyler take us through what’s new.

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