Illinois And Purdue
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Of all Big Ten basketball programs, I think Illinois and Purdue are the closest. Not geographically, although that's almost true (as the crow flies, it's 73.3 miles from State Farm Center to Mackey meaning that only Breslin-to-Crisler would be closer), but in terms of history. With Purdue (thankfully) eliminated from the Tournament as well, I figured I'd take some time to talk through these two programs.
The genesis of this post was the pregame video before the Illinois game at Purdue in February. Their pregame video, obviously, hypes their Big Ten championships. They have the most of any Big Ten school (24). But they don't have any NCAA Tournament-era titles, so every time they play that video in front of visiting fans, every visiting fan probably has the same thought I had: "that's a lot of conference titles for a team that's never won it all." Especially Indiana fans that love to point out that they have fewer Big Ten titles but five national titles.
I then moved closer to writing this when I was looking up the all-time NCAA Tournament appearances two weeks ago. We used to be 11th on that list, and then 2008 through 2019 happened, and now there are two teams tied in 20th place with 32 NCAA appearances: Illinois and Purdue. Two very similar programs. The biggest differences: Purdue has 24 Big Ten titles while Illinois has 18; Illinois has 5 Final Fours while Purdue has 2. Both also claim a pre-NCAA Tournament title (as determined by the Helms Foundation) - Illinois in 1915 and Purdue in 1932. So yeah, when we look across the Big Ten landscape, Purdue is where we might pause and say "brother?"
This is not to suggest that the two schools are rivals. Purdue's rival is in the southern part of their own state. They're so tired of hearing about the five banners that they don't really have time for another rival. Our basketball rival is... well, we don't have one. Sorry, but we don't. We have Northwestern in our state, but Illinois leads the series 141-43 so it's never really been a "rivalry". It's more like the Illinois football/Ohio State football "rivalry" in that regard. I want to beat Iowa more than any other school, but again, Iowa spreads their hate north (Minnesota) and east (Wisconsin). The rivalry has certainly ramped back up the last five years (coach scuffle, Da'Monte/McCaffery face-to-face, "we don't like them and they don't like us"), but it's nothing like Purdue-Indiana.
The main thing I wanted to focus on: these programs are very similar, so what are the subtle nuances that make the fanbases different? I think it's fairly simple:
The current hurdle for Illinois: get past the damn Round of 32.
The current hurdle for Purdue: get past the damn Sweet 16.
The "will we ever clear it?" hurdle for Illinois: at the next Final Four, finally win a title.
The "will we ever clear it?" hurdle for Purdue: finally get to the Final Four.
As I was looking up these numbers today, man, some of them are crazy. The Purdue S16 thing might be the craziest. I knew that for every Purdue fan the never-stop-thinking-about-it thing was the Final Four. They were a 1-seed in 1994 and got to the Elite 8... but they lost to Duke. They made a crazy run through a decimated bracket in 2000 (the Sweet 16 in the West Regional that year: 4-seed, 6-seed, 8-seed, and 10-seed), but 6-seed Purdue lost to 8-seed Wisconsin in the Elite 8. And then the most famous one: in 2019 Purdue is seconds away from finally breaking their "no Final Four since 1980" streak when this happens:
Can you imagine your internal "we're going to the Final Four!" celebration when that free throw comes up short and then watching that happen?
But the thing I didn't know was the Purdue Sweet 16 thing. It's why this St. Peter's loss is probably impossible for them to believe. Just imagine for a moment that you're a Purdue fan (I know it's hard - just do it). You were ranked #1 in December for the first time ever. This is the team. You're finally going to get there.
Then the bracket completely crumbles underneath you. You reach the Sweet 16 with these three teams: 4-seed UCLA, 8-seed North Carolina, and 15-seed St. Peter's. The seas have finally parted. It's happening.
And then you lose to St. Peter's in the damn Sweet 16.
I should just give you the list. The reason the Sweet 16 is Purdue's nightmare. Purdue last made the Final Four in 1980. Since then, here's their Sweet 16 results:
1988 - 1-seed Purdue lost to 4-seed K-State 73-70
1994 - 1-seed Purdue beat 4-seed Kansas 83-78
1998 - 2-seed Purdue lost to 3-seed Stanford 67-59
1999 - 10-seed Purdue lost to 6-seed Temple 77-55
2000 - 6-seed Purdue beat 10-seed Gonzaga 75-66
2009 - 5-seed Purdue lost to 1-seed UConn 72-60
2010 - 4-seed Purdue lost to 1-seed Duke 70-57
2017 - 4-seed Purdue lost to 1-seed Kansas 98-66
2018 - 2-seed Purdue lost to 3-seed Texas Tech 78-65
2019 - 3-seed Purdue beat 2-seed Tennessee 99-94 (OT)
2022 - 3-seed Purdue lost to 15-seed St. Peter's 67-64
Now, almost everyone is going to have a losing record in the Sweet 16. It's really hard to win once you reach the final 16. We're actually quite fortunate once we reach the second weekend. In our run of success from 1983 to 2005, we reached the S16 seven times and won four of the seven (1984, 1989, 2001, 2005). Purdue got there eleven times from 1988 to 2022 but only went 3-8. That's why I'm saying that their immediate hurdle is to start winning Sweet 16 games.
Our immediate hurdle? It should be obvious by now. GETTING to the Sweet 16. Grab on to something solid. This is going to hurt. Since our 2005 run to the title game, our R32 results:
2006 - 4-seed Illinois lost to 5-seed Washington 67-65
2009 - 9-seed Illinois lost to 1-seed Kansas 73-59
2013 - 7-seed Illinois lost to 2-seed Miami 63-59
2021 - 1-seed Illinois lost to 8-seed Loyola 71-58
2022 - 4-seed Illinois lost to 5-seed Houston 68-53
We've GOT to stop scoring in the 50's.
This has kind of always been our thing. We lost in the Round Of 32 in 1986, 1988, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2003 as well. And we were the higher seed in 1986, 1988, 1997, 1999, and 2003. So until we prove otherwise, the Round Of 32 is our hurdle.
As for our "someday" hurdle, though - it has to be "win a title" (not Purdue's "get to the Final Four"). We finally got over the "semifinals" hurdle to get to the title game in 2005. And because of our five Final Fours, I still think the "best program to never win it all" discussion comes down to three schools:
Houston (6 Final Fours, 2 title game appearances, 0 titles)
Oklahoma (5 Final Fours, 2 title game appearances, 0 titles)
Illinois (5 Final Fours, 1 title game appearance, 0 titles)
Every other team with five or more Final Fours has at least one title. And if you look at the other schools who might be close -- K-State does have four Final Fours, but the last one was in 1964; Purdue has a title game appearance in 1969 but only two Final Fours, none since 1980) -- it seems fairly clear that those three programs stand out as "best to never win one".
All three of the programs I just listed have memorable near-title runs as well. Phi Slama Jama, the Wayman Tisdale Sooner team that lost to Kansas in the title game in 1988, the Flyin' Illini the following year, the Dee-Deron-Luther team. So I'd say they all exist in that "when will this program win it all?" space (while Purdue, due to the lack of any Final Fours the last 42 years, does not).
I don't really have any way to wrap this up because I wasn't trying to land on any specific point. I just wanted to compare Illinois and Purdue. Two very similar Big Ten programs. Two very similar "we have a better history than you realize" programs. Both love to point out that the most recent Indiana banner was 1987 which is now 35 years ago.
And both bit by the snake in the exact same spot once again: Illinois in the R32 and Purdue in the S16.