Today you will see four new posts - two from me and two from Tyler. Let's call it the IlliniBoard 2017-18 preview in four acts. The season begins tonight - the Underwood era begins tonight - and we have a lot to say about it. Starting with starting over again.
I never really had to deal with a rebuild growing up. My first Illini basketball memory was my parents going to the 1981 Braggin' Rights game (I think Missouri won in overtime?), which was right about the time that Illinois Basketball began. I had this little plastic megaphone (handed out at the game) on my shelf all through the 1980's. I remember being interested in the 1982 team (mostly through my dad's eyes) and then really catching on in 1983. I've told the story before about my "TURN THE MACHINES BACK ON" moment at the end of the 1984 Elite Eight Kentucky/Dicky Beal game.
After that I enjoyed basketball bliss as a youth. In junior high (when sports become SPORTS), Kenny Norman was my guy. Snake is and will forever remain my favorite Illini player (nothing ever comes close to that first youthful hero, you know?). In high school, I got a Final Four and it cemented my decision that I was going to Illinois and only Illinois. Honestly, without that season (which happened my sophomore year in high school) I probably don't get in to Illinois. Sophomore year was when I first applied myself (you know, actually do your homework), all with the goal of gaining a good ACT score and admission to Illinois (which, honestly, I gained by the skin of my teeth). Thanks, Nick Anderson.
When I got to school I endured the NCAA sanctions, which I thought to be this horrific low point. Here I was watching Sweet 16 games as I grew up and then my freshman year we go 13-15. Thanks, Bruce Pearl.
In all, what felt like a low point really wasn't much of a low point. In 1990/91 we would have gone to the tournament but couldn't because of probation. In 1991/92 the recruiting restrictions hit and we went 13-15. By 1992/93 we rebounded and made the Tournament. Same with 1993/94 (first-round loss to Georgetown) and 1994/95 (first-round loss to Tulsa). "First-round losses - what torture!" I thought.
You know the rest - NIT in 1995/96 and Henson retired. Lon Kruger got us immediately back to the Tournament in 1996/97 and then won the Big Ten in 1997/98 before the true weight of Henson's retirement, and the fact that our two McDonald's All American recruits were ineligible (Marcus Griffin in his second year of junior college, Frank Williams sitting out for Prop 48), led to the 14-18 season in 1998/99.
Then, we began again. Marcus Griffin arrived after the two year detour, Frank Williams was eligible, and 1999/2000 began a seven year run of domination. Four Big Ten titles (honestly, very close to seven in a row), Elite Eight in 2001, Championship game in 2005 - we had reached the top. The late 80's were a peak, the 90's were a dip, then right back to the top (and a higher peak). At the time, I thought the 90's were what the "bottom" felt like.
The 90's weren't what the bottom felt like.
I don't really want to go through the last 10 years. Most of you youngins are finished with your history lesson and now you've lived it. But I still feel like I need to note our Big Ten records since we began again in 1999/2000:
99/00: 11-5 (3rd)
00/01: 13-1 (1st)
01/02: 11-5 (1st)
02/03: 11-5 (2nd)
03/04: 13-3 (1st)
04/05: 15-1 (1st)
05/06: 11-5 (2nd)
~edge of cliff~
06/07: 9-7 (6th)
07/08: 5-13 (9th)
08/09: 11-7 (2nd)
09/10: 10-8 (5th)
10/11: 9-9 (4th)
11/12: 6-12: (9th)
12/13: 8-10 (7th)
13/14: 7-11 (8th)
14/15: 9-9 (7th)
15/16: 5-13 (12th)
16/17: 8-10 (9th)
We thought we had restarted things in 2008/09 (five-seed, hired Jerrance and recruiting turned around). We hadn't.
We thought we had restarted things in 2012/13 (seven-seed, recruited looked strong under the new coach). We hadn't.
And now, we begin again.
In March, we hire Brad Underwood. And in his first month, he lands our first Mr. Basketball in eight years (Mark Smith). And in October, he lands what is likely his second Mr. Basketball (Ayo Dosunmu, the heavy favorite for the award next spring). Ayo has a good chance to be a McDonald's All American, too. Let's talk about why that's important.
From 1980 to 2006, there was a McDonalds All American on every single Illini roster except for two: 1996/97 (after Richard Keene graduated) and 1997/98 (Marcus Griffin was committed but didn't have the grades and had to go juco). In 1998/99, Frank Williams arrived (but had to sit out a year due to grades). When Frank graduated, Dee arrived and was here until 2006.
Since then? There has been one McDonald's All American (Jereme Richmond), and he only lasted approximately 3/4ths of one season. Ten seasons, one year of one Burger Boy, and we didn't even get a full season.
THAT'S where we need to begin. THAT'S why Ayo Dosunmu is such a big deal. When you're getting big-time players, you're getting back to where we were. We can begin again.
And that starts tonight. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty much only watching Mark Smith the whole game. I need to place my hope somewhere, and Mr. Basketball seems like a good place to start. Tonight begins the climb back to Illinois Basketball. Tonight it begins.