People Forget That

Feb 21, 2017

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Five years ago, as Bruce Weber's tenure was winding down, I first wrote about The Stats. My friend Erik has dutifully maintained The Stats over the years, having researched college basketball from every angle to see where we stand as a program. So with another tenure likely winding down, I asked him to send me the updated Stats. Where do we stand, statistically, when compared to the rest of the college basketball world?

It's interesting to go back and read that post. It was February 2012 and my feelings were nearly the same. I even started the post with "I just can't write about yet another loss", which pretty much matches my feelings today. And I referenced how college basketball talking heads had already begun to say that Illini fans "didn't know their place" in the college basketball world (something that seems to be starting up again). We feel you, NC State fan.

So where do we stand today? Statistically, how do we stack up against the rest of the college basketball world? Let's look at Erik's stats, version 5.0:

Through the 2016 season:

+ 14th all time in the NCAA in wins (#12 in winning percentage)
+ #15 (tied) all time in NCAA bids (tied for 2nd in the B1G)
+ #22 all time in NCAA Tournament wins (famously most wins for a team without a title)
+ #14 (tied) all time in Final Fours (tied for ninth-most number of Final Fours)
+ #10 all time in collective AP poll appearances (including: #14 [tied] in weeks at #1, #15 in the top 5, #10 [tied] in the top 10)
+ 2nd all-time in B1G conference wins (4th in winning percentage, though Maryland has a gaudy .722 after just 3 seasons)
+ 5th highest number of B1G conference titles
+ Most B1G Tournament wins (tied) all time (2nd highest [tied] number of championship game appearances, 4th highest [tied] number of titles)
+ Have winning records against every B1G program except Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan State
+ Tied for #20 all time in number of McDonald's All-Americans

Before the Iowa game a few weeks ago, I hopped on an Iowa podcast to discuss the upcoming game in Champaign. And I referenced these stats, much to the surprise of the Iowa hosts. The gist: they were more or less "this is a decent season for Illinois, right? Much better than last year" and I was "no, we're a program that ranks 9th nationally in weeks ranked in the AP poll and we need to act like it."

After I said that, I realized that I was quoting Erik's stats from several years ago, so I sent him a text asking for the updates. Were we still 9th? No. But we're 10th.

And I want to focus on those tournament/AP Poll stats here for a bit. Illini basketball fans have every right to demand top-25 rankings and yearly NCAA Tournaments. That is our history, so that must be our future. To wit:

  • 12th-best winning percentage in NCAA basketball history
  • 14th-most wins in all of NCAA basketball
  • 14th-most Final Four appearances (five)
  • 10th in all-time AP Poll appearances, including 10th in the number of weeks ranked in the top-10

I need to say this slowly: this is our history even when you include the last 11 seasons. This is what we have fallen to. We used to be 13th in wins, 9th in AP poll appearances, etc etc. Even with these last 11 seasons (where we're 84-108 in the Big Ten - EIGHTY FOUR AND ONE-OH-EIGHT), we're still, statistically, one of the top 12-15 programs in college basketball history.

I imagine that this is how a Tennessee Football fan has felt over the last decade. From 1981 to 2004 - only one losing season. Clearly a top-15 program nationally. From 2005 through 2016 - five losing seasons. 82-69 overall, including 40-56 in the SEC (40 and 56! At Tennessee!). Now, they seem to have things back on track with Butch Jones (although he's 14-18 in the SEC in his four seasons so the fanbase remains restless), but I feel like their experience is our experience. After they went through the Lane Kiffin/Derek Dooley years, their coaching search was filled with the same "are they really that great of a program?" questions we'll be facing.

Their answer (my answer): yes. History matters. The size of the fanbase matters. A good location for recruiting really matters. Down years are down years, but overall, a program finds strength in its history.

And we have an incredible history which includes five final fours (long-term success), a near national title in 2005 (recent success), and decades of consistent tournament appearances (sustained success). Not to mention maybe the single best basketball recruiting hotbed two hours away. There are advantages here that maybe only 15 other college basketball programs can match.

So as we enter "is Illinois really that great of a program?" season, please remember that the answer is a resounding yes. It will always be yes. The last ten years have removed some of the shine, but that always comes right back with the correct polishing compound. The history is there, and that never really goes away.

People forget that.


rml on February 21, 2017 @ 01:06 PM

Hate to have the first reply go against the stream of your post, but the Northwestern game has me squirming. Years ago, someone told me that, in its long history in the tournament, Illinois has never beaten a better-seeded team: 0 fer whatever, in games as the underdog (by seed, anyway). If that is true (I don't recall us beating any better seeded teams lately), then Northwestern (Northwestern!) could overtake us in that category this year. Ug.

Robert on February 21, 2017 @ 01:24 PM

That streak has been broken. In 2004, we beat #4 seed Cincinnati (we were the #5 seed) and in 2011 we were the #9 and beat #8 UNLV.

NC_OrangeKrush on February 21, 2017 @ 05:21 PM

Give me a break... I watched all those games back to very early 80s.. I complained then, but I am no longer.... we earned the right by seed to "disappoint".... something I will take again... vs being meaningless

Go Illini

AHSIllini32 on February 21, 2017 @ 02:55 PM

Isn't part of that also due to the fact that Illinois typically has really good seeds when they do make the tournament?

BenT05 on February 21, 2017 @ 04:52 PM

Yes, but I don't really know what you're getting at. True, a good seed means you're favored to win a game or two (or more for a top-4 seed), but that speaks to the over-arching point of "we're usually pretty good."

Found a Wikipedia list of all our NCAA Tourney seeds here, in case anyone's interested:'s_basketball#NCAA_Tournament_seeding_history

HiggsBoson on February 21, 2017 @ 05:45 PM

In all of the many years I've been an Illini basketball fan (Harry Combes was the coach at the first game I went to circa 1952), we have been good with only occasional blips, most noteworthy the aftermath of the Slush Fund, the Bruce Pearl ugliness, and now the hapless John Groce. In all cases prior to Groce we regained our mojo relatively quickly by hiring the right coach. We've already suffered five seasons of Groce's incompetence, and now today I see Loren Tate tap dancing around whether Groce will be retained. The only possible, though really not acceptable, excuse for that would be nobody better can be hired. If that happens Whitman darn well better hope Lovie delivers if he wants to keep his job.

iluvrt on February 22, 2017 @ 10:15 AM

I seriously doubt Whitman's job is in jeopardy if he keeps Groce. The State of Illinois is in jeopardy. UI BB ranks near the bottom of concerns for the pols, and I bet UI admin. I am getting the vibe that Groce stays if the team wins 2 of the next three and doesn't collapse in the BTT. How I hate that thought.

Groundhogday on February 22, 2017 @ 12:53 PM

Whitman's job isn't in jeopardy, but he would be taking a huge amount of heat from alumni were Groce retained. But in the end that probably doesn't matter as much as Whitman's own desire to compete for championships. Groce has had five years to clearly demonstrate he isn't the guy to get it done. A little head fake against a weak B1G late in the season isn't going to change that.

1701phiillini on February 22, 2017 @ 09:02 PM

Robert, I love your analysis and takes. Have you considered that Illinois Basketball may suffer from Notre Dame Football recruit ranking syndrome? That is our historical program prominence leads to inflated rankings of our recruits and when we stink we blame it on a coach cause his recruits should be better as a team. Maybe not coach's fault. Brian Kelly survives this by being a raging ahole and blaming everyone around him.

Bear8287 on February 22, 2017 @ 10:09 PM

our historical program prominence leads to inflated rankings of our recruits

The program had declined so much under Weber that I'd be really surprised if any rankings were being inflated just because a player had signed with Illinois. It's not like Illinois has suddenly had anyone become a McDAA just because they signed with the Illini.

My guess is that most Illini football fans would be happy to have classes as highly rated as ND's. Another question, if the classes are "over-rated" why isn't the coach recruiting the kids that are "truly" high-rated?

If a coach doesn't like the talent of his recruits, he only has to look as far as the nearest mirror to see who's fault that is. That goes for Groce too.

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