Illini Basketball vs Football Contrast is as Stark as Ever

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If you are a supporter of University of Illinois athletics there are certain truths that you hold dear. If you’re an alum, student, aspiring student, family member of the aforementioned groups, townie et al. you know that almost every fall brings the “it’s basketball season now” moment.

Pulling off an upset at Rutgers yesterday didn’t change that. The fact that Illini football was actually an underdog at Rutgers tells you everything you need to know about why mentally checking out on football is, like the late great Wilford Brimley said of Quaker Oats, the right thing to do.

Entering this week, BTN Analyst and Illini football legend J Leman said on a podcast that Illinois was the worst team of all in the entire Big Ten. When you’ve lost Leman, well…okay, so Illinois is better than Rutgers we now know.

And the only winless team in the league is Penn State, shockingly, so you can arguably place Illinois above them. It’s also interesting to see how they would do against the Michigans, who are both very bad this season. Everyone else though, seems to be a tier or two superior to the Illini.

The best thing Lovie Smith can do is fully embrace the era of Isaiah Williams 2. Just let the second coming of Isaiah Williams do his thing, in an extremely run-focused offense, and we’ll see what this kid is made of, let him grow and develop.

Illini football is not the most exciting thing in the world right now, but Illini basketball could be really special this season. They are ranked #8 in the AP preseason poll and junior point guard Ayo Dosunmu is a first team AP All-American.

Dosunmu teams with Kofi Cockburn to form the best inside-outside combination in the Big Ten, and arguably the nation. Combine that with the elite incoming recruiting class and Illini basketball, provided we can get an entire season in amidst the once-in-a-century pandemic, is poised to be elite.

As an Illini alumni donor from a long line of Illini alumni donors, I can tell you first hand that the tradition is to shift to into “basketball mode” sometime around the first or second conference game of the football season.

Like Kansas, Kentucky or Duke (although the program is obviously nowhere near that level) Illinois is a basketball school, and the community treats it, mostly, as such.

There are some anomalies, here and there, who prefer football over basketball, or only care about football and not basketball and that’s fine. To them I would say, bless your heart, and thoughts and prayers. That’s a rough existence, to say the least.

Also, football dredgery has not always given way to eventual basketball bliss. The dark ages of Mike Thomas brought not respite in either sport. The disaster hire that was John Groce left very little to look forward to in Illini basketball season.

It’s also worth noting a certain dark statistic/factoid that, so to speak, is actually in the favor of Illini basketball. Among all power five athletic programs, the longest drought for not having an 8+ won season on football or sweet 16 appearance in basketball is…well, you know.

However, it’s football (so props to them) who last got it done, with the 2007 Rose Bowl team. Illini basketball still hasn’t been able to advance, mind-blowingly, past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, since 2005.

Not all is lost though, to quote Jackie O. “for one brief shining moment, there was Camelot.” In 2001, the Illini had a 10-1 regular season and won the league. That spring, the basketball team won the league as well and reached the Elite 8.

Then the 01-02 hoops team won the league again and reached the sweet 16.

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You Zoomers/Generation Zs don’t know this, but from 2002-06, Illini basketball led the nation in total wins, not Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Gonzaga or anyone else. We’re not at that level, of course, but hey, at least one of the two sports seems to be “back.”

Hopefully.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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