16 Years

Mar 8, 2020

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It's been too long since I wrote something and then deleted it. And let me tell you, I just deleted a doozy. The actual title was "Dark" and I wrote about Wisconsin hanging yet another Big Ten Champs banner while we enter our 16th season without one. And 16 is the number of seasons between the 1989 Final Four and the 2005 Final Four.

Lowlights from that post:

  • I talked about how I'm like Bill Cowher that time he nearly came off the sideline and tackled a Jaguars player running past him returning a blocked kick.
  • I wondered aloud how long it would be before another Big Ten title in basketball (it's been since 2005) or football (it's been since 2001). I believe I said something like "I've accepted that we'll never win another one in football but what if it's ten more years for basketball?".
  • I discussed the Ohio State loss being the toughest loss to get over since Miami in the 2013 Tournament (that one might be true).

It's gone now. I decided to not post it yesterday, slept on it, and realized it was garbage (it was seriously titled "Dark"). Today is a new day, the clocks are sprung forward, and I'll just take a piece of it and start a new post. Let's talk about the last 16 years, the 16 years before that, and the next 16 years.

Some might remember something I tweeted last summer about a guy wearing an Illini jersey at a bar at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri and how he predicted a Final Four appearance in 2021. His reasoning: we went to the Final Four in 1989, then we went to the Final Four sixteen years later in 2005, and now we'll go to the Final Four sixteen years after that in 2021. 16 - 16 - 16.

(Yes, I did the math, and 16 years before 1989 we were 14-10 and missed the Tournament but Nick Weatherspoon did put up 25 points per game.)

That's not really where I'm going with this post, though. This is not "CAN we make the Final Four next year if Ayo were to return?" (we could). This is "if this is the end of the dip, what do we want to see in the next 16 years?".

Let's first look at the 32 years we're talking about (well, 31 years since 2021 hasn't happened yet). We'll call it "after 1989" and "after 2005".

After 1989

Tournament appearances: 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005
Big Ten championships: 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005

We should absolutely talk about the Devin Harris free throw more. We're playing Wisconsin at the end of the 2003 season. At Wisconsin. Tie game, clock running down, Dee Brown is called for a foul (it wasn't) with 0.4 seconds on the clock. Devin Harris goes to the line and misses the first but makes the second and Wisconsin wins the Big Ten while we finish one game back.

If that foul isn't called (as I recall, even Harris said after the game that he didn't think it was a foul), and that game goes to overtime, and we win in overtime (a tall task at Kohl), then we win the Big Ten and would be able to claim five consecutive Big Ten titles from 2001 to 2005. Instead, it was just win two, miss out by one game, win two more.

I don't think that call is made today. Officials weren't as self-aware back then, in my view. Today, with a tie game, it's usually "I'll let everything go here and if he misses the shot, they have five more minutes to sort it all out". Back then, it was a little more "if I see a foul I'm calling a foul". Or at least it seemed that way.

Anyway, those 16 years started with a dip, mostly thanks to Bruce Pearl's tattle. Banned from the Tournament in 1991, couldn't recruit off campus for 24 months (think about that - every "Chris Holtmann and Juwan Howard are courtside for Mac Christie's game at the Peach Jam quarterfinals" tweet you see this summer would have included zero Illini coaches for 24 months), and scholarships were reduced to only two per class for two years (Robert Bennett and Marc Davidson in 1991 and Richard Keene plus Chris Gandy in 1992).

Because it was my five years in school, I can recite the dip from memory. No Tournament in 1991/92 (13-15 on the year), got back to the Dance in 92/93 (beat Long Beach State for our only Tournament win my five years), had "just on the safe side of the bubble" teams in 1994 and 1995 (lost both first-round games), and then missed the Tournament in 1996 and Henson retired. Kruger went Round of 32, Round of 32, no Tournament, Round of 32 and then Self went Elite 8, Sweet 16, Danny Ferry. I don't know why I'm continuing here because everyone is aware by now but Weber arrives and goes Sweet 16, Championship game.

So there was a dip due to sanctions and then a mini-dip in 1999 due to five senior starters graduating in 1998 but after that it was a climb all the way to the title game. Tournament 12 of 16 seasons, six Big Ten titles.

After 2005

Tournament appearances: 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2020
Big Ten championships: none

I don't really need the rehash here because all of us have lived it. It tumbled down the hill under Weber - Sweet 16, title game appearance when he took over, followed by second round loss, first round loss, losing season, first round loss, NIT, second round loss, 17-15 and fired. Groce started with a bang (7-seed and second round loss in a game that changed the NCAA replay rules), but then never once in the Tournament again and fired after his fifth season. Underwood dipped even lower than that (14-18 followed by 12-21), but then this year is a 20-win season and a Tournament berth.

The thing that sticks out to me going through this: the floor. That's the difference between the two sets of 16 seasons. In the first set, even with two years of sanctions and recruiting restrictions and everything else, Lou Henson maintained an NCAA Bubble floor. 1994 was an 8-seed and 1995 was just an 11-seed but that was the "bottoming out". Two years on the right side of the bubble followed by one year on the wrong side of the bubble and then Henson retired.

Whereas the dive in the second set was deep. Just look at the four year Weber decline and the four year Groce decline. Weber went title game, 4-seed, last team in as a 12-seed, losing season. Groce went 7-seed, 20-15 (bubble burst - NIT), 19-14 (bubble burst - NIT), 15-19. And then Underwood started with a 14-win season and a 12-win season. Henson? Losing season after all the sanctions dropped (and Jamie Brandon went off to LSU), but then right back with a 6-seed the next year. Kruger had the understandable drop after the seniors graduated in 1998 (plus Frankie not qualifying and having to sit out the 1999 season), but then right back with a 4-seed the next year. And Self was an obvious home run (1-seed, 4-seed, 4-seed).

Here I said I wasn't going to rehash and I'm hashing. The point: so much solid construction under Henson to build a really good floor. And then it rotted and we bottomed out two times.

2021 And Beyond

So according to my friend at the bar last summer we'll totally be in the Final Four next season. What should we expect after that?

OK, fine, maybe we won't be in the Final Four. But the first goal here in building a floor is back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. We haven't gone to the Tournament in back-to-back years since... wait for it... 2006 and 2007.

"Back to back" really is the theme of next season. In football, in the last THIRTY YEARS we were in back-to-back bowls in 1991 and 1992 and then again in 2010 and 2011. And that's it. For basketball, after going to the NCAA Tournament 21 of 25 seasons from 1983 to 2007, we haven't been to the dance in back-to-back seasons since. So... need to go back-to-back.

Then, for the following 16 seasons, what kind of expectations should we have? For football I just want to be relevant but for basketball, at Illinois, we need to set goals very high. Here's what I'm expecting:

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 12 in 16 seasons
Big Ten titles: Four

Four feels a little low, but I'm acknowledging there that it's a little harder to do in 2022 than it was in even 1990. Let's go through that.

In 1990, there were 10 teams in the Big 10. And two of them (Northwestern and Wisconsin) didn't really even try to be decent. In 1990, Wisconsin hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1949 and Northwestern had never been. They didn't invest in coaches, they didn't invest in facilities - you had to beat seven other teams to win the conference. And some of those schools (Minnesota, for example) weren't really threats at the time.

Now I think it's fair to say that it's much harder to win the conference. Every school has invested in basketball, even Rutgers and Northwestern. I'd categorize it like this:

Football schools who might use their football money to win a bunch of basketball games from time to time: Nebraska and Penn State
Schools who have been historically horrific at basketball but can still pop up with a decent team here and there: Rutgers and Northwestern
Schools actively trying to win the conference title every year: the other 10.

Given those realities, I think four Big Ten titles is a good goal. One every four years. I mean, Lou Henson only ever won one. It's hard to do, especially if you get a dominant team in the conference going on a Kentucky or Kansas or Duke-like run. (Of course, then again, we could just be the Kentucky or Kansas or Duke of the Big Ten....)

So that's where I'm setting my goals. This 16 season stretch so very obviously ends with a Final Four next season. After that, 12 Tournaments and 4 Big Ten titles.

Now that the trajectory is pointed up, accept nothing less.


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