Since 2000, the Big Ten conference has been loaded with elite talents and some of college basketball’s greatest players. Fans have seen numerous Big Ten players earn All-Americans and National Players of the Year honors during that time.
But who has been the best?
With the offseason in full swing, BTPowerhouse has decided to sit down and break down the Big Ten’s greatest players since the start of the 2000-’01 season. We will be taking a look at each program and how it fits into the league.
This time, we will look at the greatest players from the last 17 seasons for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Please note that this evaluation only looks at college contributions at the particular school. It does not include a player’s contributions at another school or the professional level.
Brief Recap Since 2000:
Let's take a look at what the Illinois basketball program has accomplished since 2000. 17 years is a long time in college basketball years, so it doesn't hurt to refresh our memory a little bit and remember what has happened with the program during this span. Heck, I was just one year old in 2000, even I need to go back and dig up some previous records.
-Basic Stats Since 2000
- NCAA Tournament Appearances: 10
- Winning Seasons: 15
- Big Ten POTY Winners: Three
- Consensus All-Americans: Six
The early to mid-2000s were the most exciting times for Fighting Illini fans. 2005 was the peak for the Illinois program, as the team went 37-2 in the year, with their only losses coming on the last day of the regular season and against North Carolina in the National Championship. Since then, the Illini have made it to the Big Dance five times, but failed to make it past the Sweet 16.
Illinois' last appearance in the NCAA Tournament was in 2012-’13 during John Groce's first season as head coach. While there was plenty of optimism after that season with the Groce era, reality has fallen short of expectations during Groce's time at the helm which led to his firing this past March.
Now, with the hiring of former Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood, there is a certain buzz and promise around University of Illinois basketball that's been missing the past couple of years. While there still is some work to do to bring the Illinois program back to what it was during the Bill Self/Bruce Weber era in the 2000s, Illini fans should buckle up and get ready for the rebuild.
Illinois' Mount Rushmore Since 2000:
-Dee Brown (2002-2006)
There's no question Dee Brown was the most fun player to watch in college basketball during the mid-2000s. The baggy shorts with the dreadlocks and headband made him the player with the most swagger in the nation.
Known for his three-point shooting, Brown averaged 13.2 points per game and shot 36 percent from the field during his career in the Orange and Blue. Brown scored a total of 1,812 which is good for fourth on the Illinois all-time scoring leaders list.
Brown's best season at Illinois was in 2005 when he helped lead his team to the national championship and also won the Naismith Player of the Year award, as the best player in college basketball. While it's up for debate as for whether he's the best player in Illinois basketball history, there's no question he's the most recognizable and most popular player ever to put on an Illini uniform.
-Brandon Paul (2009-2013)
The cousin of NBA star point guard Chris Paul, Brandon was one of the most highly-touted in-state high school recruits to play for Illinois in recent memory.
Paul was brought to Champaign to score the basketball, and he did just that. Paul averaged 12.0 points per game during his four years at Illinois, including averaging 16.6 points per contest in his senior season. While Paul's teams didn't have as much success as Brown and Williams' groups, Illinois still made it to the Round of 32 twice during Paul's four-year career and held a winning record in each of those seasons.
As the darkhorse in this Mount Rushmore, Paul still had one of the best careers in Illinois' history. His scoring tally is good for ninth on the all-time scoring list and ranks seventh in three-point field goals made.
-Malcolm Hill (2013-2017)
After scoring 4.4 points per game his freshman year, Hill improved drastically and became one of the most prolific scorers in Illinois' basketball history during his last three seasons.
At the conclusion of his career, Hill scored 1,817 points which put him at number three on the Illinois' all-time scoring list. After making little to no impact his freshman season, Hill went on to average 16.6 points per game and was named to the second all-Big Ten team his junior and season year.
While Hill had an exceptional college career, the one thing he lacked was team success. Hill's prowess at Illinois is overlooked by the fact he never appeared in a NCAA Tournament game and could never get the chance to lead his team far into the tournament, something that will haunt his legacy for years to come.
-Deron Williams (2002-2005)
Many recognize Williams as someone who used to be one of the best point guards in the NBA and the veteran who struggled in this year's NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But, before his pro days, Williams was running the show at the point for the Illini and put together solid numbers throughout his time in Champaign.
In his career at Illinois, Williams averaged 11.9 points and 5.9 assists per game and helped lead his teams to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, which includes the National Championship in 2005.
While Williams wasn't known for crossing guys up or being super flashy, he was arguably the most steady and consistent guard in the country at the time which earned him a first team All-American nomination in 2005 and drafted third overall in the 2005 NBA Draft.
What Williams is probably most remembered for is leading the charge in the crazy comeback win over Arizona in the 2005 Elite Eight.
Honorable Mention: James Augustine, Brian Cook, Luther Head, Meyers Leonard, Mike Tisdale, Frank Williams.