Awesome Illinois Basketball

Jul 18, 2021

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My shirt is supposed to arrive tomorrow. I wrote about my shirt from high school, some reader found an old one online, and tomorrow I'll be in possession of the shirt I wore my entire sophomore year of high school: Awesome Illinois Basketball. That kinda fits right now.

I mean, the shirt doesn't fit. The size for sale online was a large. This one will go on the wall, not the body. OK maybe one Farley photo and then up on the wall.

But the slogan fits. I hurried to the mall in 1989 to buy the shirt because Brian wore it to school. He told me he bought it at that one store at St. Clair Square (I think it's a David's Bridal now), so I had to get one of my own. At the time, Illinois was #4 in the polls, and as a 16 year-old, I could not wear enough Illini gear. The Flyin' Illini had captured the attention of college basketball, and the "hey, that's my team!" was impossible to resist. Especially when you're 16.

That feeling then more or less remained for the next 18 years. Awesome Illinois Basketball. Bruce Pearl screamed "NO FAIR" like a 6 year-old and tried to destroy it with his toy hammer but it was quickly re-assembled in the late-90's. From 1990 to 2007, Illinois missed the Tournament only four times: 1991 and 1992 because of Pearl, 1996 when Henson retired, and 1999 when Kruger pushed the full reset button. Other than that, Awesome Illinois Basketball.

I guess I should show you the full shirt since it's cropped in the banner above. This is the picture I have of it. I'll probably be outside waiting for the UPS guy tomorrow.

It's so very 1989. Some girl called it "rad" when I wore it, and that's enough to put it in the "Monday-Thursday this week, then Tuesday-Friday next week" rotation as a sophomore in high school. I probably learned how to do laundry because of this shirt.

So if you're wondering what us old people were yelling about for the entire decade of the 2010's, it's this. Awesome Illinois Basketball was gone. We missed the NCAA Tournament for seven consecutive seasons. And it wasn't just those seven seasons - we missed the Tournament as many times from 2008 to 2014 as we did from 1983 to 2007. Let's put those two together: we missed the tournament four times from 1983 to 2007 (!!!). We then missed the Tournament four times from 2008 to 2014. We then missed the Tournament another consecutive six years after that, the last one being an "oh COME ON" Tournament miss when it was canceled because of a pandemic.

Now? Now it's back. It's so incredibly back. List time.

  • Kofi Cockburn returns for his junior season (and to permanently cement his legend). It's quite possible that two of the four Illini Basketball Mt. Rushmore players played in this era.
  • Giorgi left, but he was replaced by Omar Payne. Lefty-shooter Adam Miller left, but he was replaced by lefty-shooter Alfonso Plummer (and lefty shooter Brandin Podziemski). Ayo will be impossible to replace, but Andre Curbelo will try.
  • Three recruits arrive. Oh, and all three recruits were RSCI top-100 recruits.
  • There's no RSCI for 2022 yet, but using 247's Composite Rankings, Jayden Epps is #63 and Sencire Harris is #100.
  • Bart Torvik's T-Rank is updated with the Illinois and Texas additions this weekend. Illinois is now #4 nationally next season. Gonzaga, UCLA, Texas, Illinois, Michigan a year after getting a one-seed. So incredibly back.
  • Brad Underwood.

That last one deserves several paragraphs. Well, and the first one. And maybe the fourth. I'll start with Underwood.

Maybe it's just the wisdom that comes from having worn an Awesome Illinois Basketball shirt in 1989 (actually, it's just the cynicism plus "I just don't have the energy anymore"), but you won't find a single example of me flipping out at anything that happened this offseason. Go check. I haven't deleted any tweets or any articles. I've held one consistent message: Underwood is navigating this so well.

Here's some of the things I've said:

I also asked this question a few weeks later and got another pitch perfect response:

I cannot remember an example of an Illini coach handling a tumultuous offseason so well. A friend once described Underwood's personality as "Texas oil man" and I think that fits perfectly. He just J.R. Ewing'd this entire offseason. (Told you I'm old.)

Lose three assistants? Look directly at the camera and say "I'm gonna go do it again" (actual quote). Lose transfers? Bring in other transfers. Kofi in the transfer portal? With a camera shoved in his face at a golf outing say "Kofi is our player until he's not." To steal a term from 30 Rock, he's Reaganing right now.

I mean, look at the RSCI numbers. Let's talk about those consensus top-100 recruits discussed above. I'll use RSCI for most all classes here, but for 2022 (RSCI is not out yet) I'll use the 247 Composite. Here's 2005, then 2009, then 2017, and then Underwood's recruiting run from the 2018 class to the 2022 class. A simple list of top-100 recruits on the roster:

  • 2004/05: Deron Williams, Dee Brown, James Augustine, Roger Powell, Richard McBride, Brian Randle, Nick Smith, Shaun Pruitt
  • 2008/09: Demetri McCamey, Alex Legion
  • 2016/17: JCL, DJ Williams, Leron Black
  • 2018/19: Ayo Dosunmu
  • 2019/20: Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn
  • 2020/21: Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo
  • 2021/22: Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo, Omar Payne, Brandin Podziemski, Ramses Melendez, Luke Goode
  • 2022/23: Andre Curbelo, Omar Payne, Brandin Podziemski, Ramses Melendez, Luke Goode, Jayden Epps, Sencire Harris

You're at "lock up Underwood for at least eight years" at this point, right? You should be.

What was the other thing I was going to cover in more detail? Oh, right - Kofi. Let's close with that.

Likely preseason first-team All American returns to Champaign. 13.3/8.8 as a freshman, 17.7/9.5 as a sophomore... 20 & 11 as a junior? Big Ten Player of the Year? 7th in the KenPom player ratings last year... #1 this coming season? Possible National Player of the Year?

It's all too good to be true. And I mean that - after the 2010's, this just doesn't feel real. Best case scenario for Ayo's career followed by the best case scenario for Kofi's career. Like all of you, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop because this kind of thing just doesn't happen to us.

Well, it used to happen to us. Used to happen all the time, actually. And then it went away. And now it's back.

Awesome Illinois Basketball.


ChampaignSipper on July 18, 2021 @ 01:29 PM

I sense another T-shirt choice being added to the Illiniboard/4th & Kirby line up is coming soon!

DB50 on July 18, 2021 @ 02:59 PM

Thank you Josh Whitman for "stealing" Brad Underwood from Okie State!

Illiniboat on July 18, 2021 @ 03:35 PM

I like the assistant hires and Underwood's continuing efforts to sign every lefty in existence, but Kofi staying makes this all look significantly better. Otherwise 4 of the top 7 players and all the assistants leave after the best season in years, which there would be no spin for. That's a four alarm fire. Kofi staying is literally the only normal thing that happened this off-season.

Giovantischixstripz on July 18, 2021 @ 04:16 PM

It really isn't. It's the new normal. The assistants all leaving the same off-season is a bit unlucky, but between NIL, the new transfer rule, and having players as good as ayo who can go pro, losing 4 or of your top 7 is standard operating procedure in 2021.

Illiniboat on July 18, 2021 @ 05:20 PM

One or the other, sure. Both? Show me the other ranked teams that happened to.

IBFan on July 18, 2021 @ 07:57 PM

Losing Gentry back to Gonzaga is going to happen. Losing OA to Kentucky is going to happen. Giorgi going Pro, Ayo going NBA. If Kofi went Pro, can’t avoid. Miller leaving....if you knew what happened all year...couldn’t be avoided and will be better for team. Chin Coleman ok.

Giovantischixstripz on July 18, 2021 @ 09:14 PM

I acknowledged that the coaching turnover is rare, but if you understand the background its pretty obvious why at least 2 of the 3 coaches went back home. The player turnover is common in this day in age.

Gonzaga lost 4 of their top 7 Baylor loses their top 4 Michigan loses 5 of 8 Alabama loses 6 of 8 Houston loses 3 of top 4 Ohio St. just 3 of 7 Iowa loses 4 of 7 Texas loses 4 of top 6 Arkansas loses their top 3

So even if we had lost Kofi and Ayo, along with Adam and Giorgi, that just puts as at par for the course with the rest of the top 10 teams from last year.

IlliniJoe81 on July 18, 2021 @ 03:54 PM

I've been waiting for this article. I needed that. Someone else gets it.

Now when you go to recruit for 2023, you'll have an Illini program that has been good the entire time he's been in high school. They won't even remember the Groce era or Underwood's first two years.

Efremwinters84 on July 19, 2021 @ 07:50 AM

And a shout out to Lou, who laid the bricks and established that original foundation many of us now use as a comparative baseline. Playing in the NCAA tourney each and every year should be a given. Reaching the Sweet 16 each year and consistently playing the second weekend should be the goal. Do this -- and that 1st national championship will finally come under Brad's leadership.

We're a basketball school until we're not!

NC_OrangeKrush on July 19, 2021 @ 12:44 PM

And a Jimmy Collins shout out as the recruiter for many of those players! on July 18, 2021 @ 05:54 PM

Love the Top 100 recruit data on pre and post BU. Lots of Fun Game Days Ahead!

Altgeld88 on July 19, 2021 @ 09:44 AM

"To steal a term from 30 Rock, he's Reaganing right now."

lol. Well done. Yeah, Underwood is the bomb. I'm Class of '88, have been an Illini fan since '83, and have followed Big Ten hoops fanatically since '72 when I was in kindergarten.

Not once this off season have I doubted that the program is in the right hands with a guy who may well retire here. Haven't felt this stable and long-term positive since the late '80s under Lou.

Feels good.

PacNW Illini on July 19, 2021 @ 04:16 PM

I am class of '91, and right there with you Altgeld88. My siblings and I are 3rd of 4 generations of Illini, and I can't remember a time (outside Lou's tenure) when things felt so solid. It's nice to feel good about Illinois hoops again.

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on July 20, 2021 @ 07:25 AM

1991 here too. Other than a slight uptick upon Zooks hiring and early recruiting, could not agree more.

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