It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Illini basketball fans. No, it wasn’t supposed to be like this at all. For the second straight season, Illinois, not having to do any more than hold chalk, was supposed to be playing on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s weird how this program is so snakebit in the round of 32 (although Iowa would also like a word, when it comes to that), and the sweet sixteen and beyond drought rolls on for at least another year. Ditto for the Hawkeyes. Guess it’s time to turn the page.
Thank You Super Seniors
It really shouldn’t be so damn hard to win back-to-back games against non-conference opponents in March, especially when you’re favored in one, if not both, but here we are again. It’s just something that both Iowa and Illini basketball seem incapable of doing.
Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are two of the best players in Illini basketball history, like Luka Garza and Keegan Murray are for Iowa, but all will likely end their college careers having never progressed beyond the round of 32. We’re still waiting on the official declarations from Cockburn and Murray, but it seems like the wind is blowing that direction right now.
Also leaving Illinois are Trent Frazier, DaMonte Williams, Jacob Grandison, Alfonso Plummer and Austin Hutcherson. Did Williams and Frazier kind of disappear again in the postseason, yeah? Did Frazier have a lot of awful shooting nights? Was Williams a one-way player for entire games? Yes and Yes.
However, think of all the times Frazier single-handedly bailed out this Illini basketball team. Remember that Williams was the ultimate glue guy for five years, getting it done with defense and rebounding.
Both were here when John Groce plunged the program into the toilet, and both stayed the course to restore the glory.
They both leave with two banners/rings (Big Ten Tournament last year, share of Big Ten title this season), and that is very well deserved.
This group achieved a lot, and let’s not lose sight of that. You can be grateful to them, for their service, but also ready to move on to something new, and hopefully better in the future. This group has won everything they can, and ever would anyway.
Both things can be true.
Cockburn is a dominant NBA Center born 20-25 years too late. If this was Shaq’s draft class, Kofi would be a blue chip prospect. In present day, he’s not a NBA player, because his passing skills are lacking and he can’t defend a ball screen effectively.
So what does he do? Come back for one more year and be THE most dominant player in the college game and dominate preseason award watch lists? We call that Tyler Hansbroughing. With more national pub he could cash in on more NIL money, but maybe he should just start his professional career overseas, and get paid there. Also, don’t rule out his pulling a Malcolm Hill.
Cockburn could still be a legit NBA player someday down the road, albeit via circuitous route. Nothing wrong with that at all. What 2022-23 holds for Cockburn remains to be seen.
Andre Curbelo was simply just not himself this season. It appears the early season concussion sent him into a state from which he hasn’t totally recovered yet. You can see that, especially in the numbers. His turnovers numbers and shooting percentages are just not Curbelolike.
Hopefully next year, Belo will be back to the guy he was his rookie year. Nope, hopefully, he gets better than that. Because Curbelo is a guy with a very bright future, potentially in the NBA, should he recover and then develop on his projected learning curve.
Putting the System on Trial
In his nine years as a head coach, Underwood still hasn’t reached the second weekend of March Madness, as he’s 0-4 in round of 32 affairs. What makes this year’s crash out hurt a little more than it should, is well, the Big Ten Tournament was a disaster showing as well.
However, it’s worth noting that college basketball itself is kind of a weird sport, in that there is way too much importance placed on the postseason. A lot of people who care about college hoops, just do not give a F, at all, until March, and that’s just not fair. While we all seem to love March Madness, the truth is it doesn’t determine that season’s best team.
Does it crown a champion? Yes, but only probably. Most likely, yes, but crowning a national champion is a totally different thing from determining the best team. 2005 Illini basketball deserved to win it all and be remembered as national champions. Ditto for 2015 Kentucky.
The list of all-time teams with this fate is long, because weird things happen in March. Sometimes it’s all about bad match-ups, fluky happenings, poor officiating, really off shooting nights and so forth.
Thus, it’s kind of crazy and to be blunt, pretty stupid that so many people place all the value and worth on March Madness. That said, none of this excuses the pathetic NCAA Tournament history (with the exception of 1989 and 2005) of Illini basketball.
For all the upsets and weirdness of March, not once has Illini basketball ever sprung a real true upset, or gone on a deep run as a lower seeded team.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”