Every 16 Years

Aug 1, 2020

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I'm at Jolly Roger Bar & Grill at the Lake of the Ozarks in June of 2019. They have this massive boat in the middle of the deck that serves as their bar. I'm bellied up to the boat and I look across and see a guy in a Kendall Gill jersey. When you're in the middle of Missouri, surrounded by tiger tails, you have to acknowledge the orange-out effort. So I struck up a conversation with the guy. I pointed to my Illini shirt, he pointed to his Gill jersey, we I-L-L'd and started chatting. He recognized me from my Twitter picture, and he went all in.

"I need you to put something on Twitter right now."

"Alright - what is it?"

"Tweet that Illinois will be in the Final Four in 2021. I'm calling it, right here, at this bar, right now. Illini Final Four 2021. We were in the Final Four in 1989, 16 years later we were in the Final Four in 2005, and 16 years later we'll be in the Final Four in 2021."

And so I tweeted it, along with a photo of his Kendall Gill jersey:

In reality, I did the math, and 2021 wasn't going to be the year. We only had one more year of Ayo before he was off to the NBA, so 2021, while not a bad season, wasn't going to get close to the Final Four. Yes, Trent would be a senior and this Kofi Cockburn recruit would be a sophomore where he'd maybe have a breakout season, but we hadn't even recruited Ayo's replacement yet. AND the bench was probably going to be a bit thin.

I mean, if we were going to have any chance at a Final Four run, we'd have to, like, see Kofi win Big Ten Freshman of the Year and then recruit two top-50 freshmen in the 2020 class and then somehow get Ayo to come back for his junior season.

Hey now...

I'll start by talking myself down and then I'll talk it back up. Look, Final Four expectations on any team are massive. So much has to go right. This team here is still replacing Feliz and Griffin, still needs an "I'm coming back as well" response from Kofi, and still has to climb over 16 other teams to move from #21 (where we finished last season in the polls) to one of the four best teams in the country. Duke and Kentucky enter every single season with Final Four expectations and neither has been there since 2015.

So I should probably slow my roll on "Final Four". It is very, very hard to get to the Final Four. We haven't been to the Sweet 16 since 2005, so that should be the goal. Just get me to the second weekend. This will be a very good team with Ayo back, but there are also 12-15 similar teams, and they'll all be trying to get to the Final Four next season as well.

(Also, uh, there might not be college basketball this year.)

But if there is....

  • Ayo is the leading scorer, potential Big Ten Player of the Year, and possible 1st Team All American. Lofty goals, yes, but I think he'll be on so many preseason All American lists. I don't think it's wrong at all to say he'll be one of the 10 best players in college basketball.
  • Kofi (if he returns) also has the potential to be first-team All Big Ten. I think that's a fairly normal progression for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. FOTY, then 1st-team All Big Ten as a sophomore, then maybe NBA.
  • Senior leadership from Trent Frazier. He showed last year that he was willing to play whatever role necessary for this team to succeed. I think we've all been dreaming about Trent's senior season since he was a freshman.
  • Another senior leader and lockdown defender in Da'Monte. Every team needs a glue guy. Our glue guy is Frank Williams' son.
  • Fresh off his sophomore slump and ready to fill his role (and still with post moves for days): Giorgi Bezhanishvili. (I said that in my PA announcer voice.) GEORGEEE bezhanish-VILLLLLLLLLEEEEEEEE.
  • Oh hey look at that two top-50 freshmen. We haven't had a top-30 player in the RSCI since Meyers Leonard, but now we do with Adam Miller at #29. And we haven't had two top-50 players in one class since DJ Richardson (35) and Brandon Paul (49) in 2009, but this year Miller is 29 and Andre Curbelo is 45. And - AND - with Ayo back they can be impact freshmen off the bench and won't be pressured into too heavy a role.
  • And we also get depth from two transfers who sat out last season (Hutcherson and Grandison). If they're not ready for this level, the team can survive that. If they are ready, more gravy on top.
  • Plus there's BBV and Hawkins and Hamlin and other various and sundry parts which might be able to contribute here and there.

So, honestly, maybe we'd should start talking about a deep tournament run. Wait, you're already talking about it? Can I join? Because we might be able to pull off a deep tournament run.

One last thought. When walking back here to the home office to write this post, I thought about Ayo crumpled on the floor at the end of the Michigan State game, his knee buckled and bent, the State Farm Center completely silent and in shock. We just knew he had one more buzzer beater in him, but a little sweat on the floor sent his foot flying as he went to plant for the winning shot. Not only did we not get treated to another buzzer beater, we thought he might be out for the season.

Then, after missing one game, there he is, in uniform, at Penn State, in the starting lineup. And guess what? He put the game away with a floater in the lane, adding to his big shot legacy. The big 3-pointer against Indiana, the big shot against Iowa - is he Superman? How often can he do this?

For another full season, apparently.


Giovantischixstripz on July 31, 2020 @ 10:36 PM

Please let there be a season. Even if it is just conference season, conference tourney and then NCAA. I know there are bigger things going on and if it can't be done safely it shouldn't be done, but we all have been waiting a long time to have a team like this, 2020 has already taken so much, don't let it take this away from us too.

Just focusing on basketball, assuming Kofi comes back too, and Garza goes back to Iowa and Tillman probably goes back to MSU, the Big 10 is going to be even better than last year (already the best conference in the country). 4 teams on top (Illinois, Iowa, MSU and Wisconsin) should all be gunning for 1 or 2 seeds in the Dance and have serious final 4 aspirations. And it isn't like the middle is going to drop off much either. Its going to be a bloodbath.

Illiniiniowa on August 2, 2020 @ 03:44 PM

Tillman is remaining in the draft, but MSU has Aaron Henry coming back and will be really good. I don't think Wisconsin will be sniffing a 1 or 2 seed though.

Giovantischixstripz on August 2, 2020 @ 07:13 PM

If I was picking now, I'd guess

  1. Illinois
  2. Iowa
  3. Wisconsin
  4. MSU

But while Wisconsin doesn't have the superstar talent the other 3 have, they return everybody from a team that tied for first last year, and win big 10 championships with less talent is just what they do. I'd say they are least likely of the 4 to make the final 4 though.

Groundhogday on August 1, 2020 @ 11:53 PM

Agree 100% with *Please let there be a season." I'm not sure exactly how all of the pieces come together, but this team has elite perimeter players, an elite post man, experience, depth, role players, ... PLEASE let there be a season. Mask up folks!

bart34 on August 2, 2020 @ 02:24 PM

I say 3rd time is charm, in 1989 Illini made it to the final four, in 2005 made it to the championship game, so in 2021 might just as well win it all ??

rml on August 3, 2020 @ 04:20 PM

While we're dreaming, when was the last time a team went from no tournament appearances in seven years to national champs? Another great storyline possibility.

ClassOfDeeDeronJames on August 3, 2020 @ 10:31 AM

Robert - as I daydream about this program returning to prominence, I can't help but think of all the young fans that have no idea where we were in the early 2000s. Please consider a future post that discusses our past expectations. Remember when we would never lose at home? Or when the selection sunday discussion was only whether we would be a 4 or 6 seed? 2005 was magical, but the program had strong standing before then. Thanks as always for your content.

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