The headlines following Illinois’ victory over Missouri last Saturday praised the Illini for running their Braggin’ Rights winning streak to five. While fans of both programs like to get themselves worked up over the rivalry in late December (some even manage to convince themselves the rivalry is a fierce as Duke/UNC), the Illini’s streak is an afterthought come the offseason. A 4-1 record in the series did exactly nothing to save John Groce’s job (nor should it have). A 4-0 record will have little effect on Malcolm Hill’s legacy (unfortunately). And a win this year over a Missouri team that the national media buried in November will mean exactly nothing if the Illini don’t manage a winning record in league play (after an 0-2 start, that looks unlikely).
The truth is, no casual fan will take this game seriously until at least one program rediscovers lost glory. Neither program has made the tournament since 2013, neither has made the Sweet Sixteen since 2009.
For Illinois, the futility extends to 2005, when they possessed one of the best teams not to win a title in college basketball history. For the first time since then, however, there is legitimate reason to hope in Champaign. There was false promise under the previous regime in Champaign: a desperate hope that took four-and-a-half years to burn itself out. John Groce peaked in his first month-and-a-half on the job, leading a senior-laden team to a fast start before faltering in conference play and falling in the second round of the tournament. After a similar period of time, Brad Underwood’s squad has decidedly not peaked. They’ve lost five times, none to particularly imposing teams, and have looked extremely raw for stretches. But there are many early indications of a quick turnaround, namely depth and young leadership. More than that, there are echoes of the last successful team to come out of Illinois. The 2005 team was built on strong guard play, as are most great college teams, and the Illini have more backcourt depth now than they had under John Groce or Bruce Weber.
Are Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Mark Smith the next Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams? It’s a high bar, but I don’t think it’s a crazy comparison (no one would have said the same about Jaylon Tate and Jalen Coleman-Lands…) To that group the Illini will add their top recruit since Dee Brown in Morgan Park PG Ayo Dosunmu. The frontcourt is concerning, but Underwood undoubtedly prefers having a glut of guards and few big men to the reverse situation.
For all programs that don’t attract one-and-dones, the most important man in the program is the head coach. John Groce and Bruce Weber assembled adequate if not enviable talent late in their tenures in Champaign. Its telling, then, that both lost 15 games in their last seasons, seasons in which “their” talent reached its peak: 2012 for Weber and 2017 for Groce. Brad Underwood is not flawless, but his earnestness will earn him patience and a fair shake from an exhausted and depleted fanbase. Unlike his predecessors, he seems to have the program on an upward trajectory.
As for Braggin’ Rights, they are nice to have. Maybe future Mizzous will offer better competition under their latest savior Cuonzo Martin. Regardless, Brad Underwood’s Illini have their sights set much higher.