We continue our countdown of the best Big Ten programs of the past decade. Prior articles in this series can be found here:
- Rutgers Scarlet Knights
- Penn State Nittany Lions
- Northwestern Wildcats
- Nebraska Cornhuskers
- Minnesota Golden Gophers
As a reminder, we’ll be looking at eight categories for each program. The first four are the only ones that had any bearing on the ranking:
- Big Ten regular-season winning percentage
- Number of teams finishing ahead in the Big Ten standings
- Big Ten regular season titles
- Big Ten Tournament titles
- Team of the Decade
- Player of the Decade
- Regular Season Win of the Decade
- Regular Season Crushing Loss of the Decade
The ninth-best program in the conference over the past decade was the Illinois Fighting Illini. The 2000s decade saw Illinois win four Big Ten titles and make the national championship game. The 2010s were not as good. The denizens of Champaign continue to argue with one another whether their programs should be better, whether Chief Illiniwek was a symbol of inherent racism, and whether those latter two issues have anything to do with one another.
Seriously, Illinois fans are in a permanent state of identity crisis, and it’s fascinating to watch. Not so much anymore after a decade-plus of losing, but when I was in college, there was no fanbase that would melt down after a bad loss like Illinois fans would. They got so close to the top of the mountain in 2005, and something deep down in their orange-and-blue soul told them that that’s where they rightfully belonged. Year after year of such an elite program living on the bubble produced cognitive dissonance, which led to everything from rage to apathy to self-effacing humor.
(Incidentally, the same thing is about to happen to Michigan, but at least those people have football.)
-Big Ten Winning Percentage
Illinois clocked in with a .401 winning percentage. Put another way, Illinois lost six out of every ten Big Ten games they played. Of the programs we’ve reviewed so far, Illinois is the first that has fans that legitimately claim their school is a once-and-future conference powerhouse. But powerhouses win more than half their games.
-Teams Finishing Ahead of Illinois
Minnesota finished tenth in these power rankings, with 73 teams ahead of them over the course of ten years. Illinois edged out the Gophers by one, finishing below 72 other teams in the 2010s. Their best finish was a four-way tie for fourth in 2011. That year the Illini tied with Michigan State, their best performance relative to Tom Izzo’s program. The only school to finish ahead of Illinois every single year was Wisconsin. For the decade, Illinois only outpaced Rutgers, and even there they finished tied last season.
-Big Ten Regular Season Titles
None in the 2010s.
-Big Ten Tournament Titles
None in the 2010s. The Illini’s best finish was a semifinal appearance in 2010.
-Team of the Decade
Honestly, of all the programs in the Big Ten, Illinois is the one who you could make a case for None of the Above. I don’t think there’s a single team in ten years where the bitter memories don’t still outweigh the happy ones. When you spend an entire decade underachieving, trying and failing to get back to earlier heights, you can’t even choose a year where the Illini did well relative to expectations. Really the only times I can remember Illinois fans being more optimistic than pessimistic—apart from May through October—were during John Groce’s first season and during one four-game stretch last year.
Still, we have to crown one Illini squad as the best from the 2010s. Fortunately, KenPom makes it easy. The 2011 Illini were the 18th best team in the country, and though they only earned a nine seed in the Big Dance, they managed to win a game to make it to the Round of 32. McCamey, Tisdale, and Davis made for a pretty respectable senior class. The 2011 team also managed to beat a pretty good UNC squad by double-digits.
-Player of the Decade
The contenders here should probably be Demetri McCamey or Brandon Paul. Maybe Nnanna Egwu. Those were all good-but-not-great four-year guys, all of whom leave Illinois fans thinking about what might have been if roster construction had come together a little more tightly. So I’m going to go a little bit unconventional for this pick. The numbers and the wins don’t back it up, but this is a guy who could be elected mayor of Champaign tomorrow.
Nah, it’s this guy—
Yep, I’m drinking that orange Kool-Aid. Giorgi was everyone’s favorite Big Ten personality last season, and he’s going to be the anchor of an Illini Renaissance in the 2020s. Or at least that’s what my Illini friends tell me.
-Regular Season Win of the Decade
January 31, 2012.
I like to give Illini fans a lot of crap for losing 38-33 to Penn State. Mostly because I remember watching that entire game in my dorm, unable to believe what I was seeing. However, the Illini were also capable of winning games with ungodly low scores.
2012 was a wild ride. “Bubble” Bruce Weber was on his last trip through the Big Ten, though on January 10, nobody would have known it. At that point the Illini were 15-3, just having beaten an Ohio State team that would end up making the Final Four.
Illinois lost 9 of their last 10 and missed the NCAA Tournament.
The one win in that stretch? This game.
Illinois 42, Michigan State 41. No team led by more than five the entire game.
-Regular Season Orange Krushing Loss of the Decade
Help me out in the comments, Illinois fans. 38-33 was in 2009, so it’s ineligible. I could be persuaded into probably several dozen games, but as my official choice I’m going to go with December 18, 2010. I can’t find highlights of this game on YouTube, but here’s a summary:
- This was a bad opponent. (In fact, the worst KenPom opponent, No. 254, to beat Illinois in the 2010s)
- It was against an in-state school.
- The game was played in Chicago.
- Illinois lost despite going on a 19-3 run
- ...in the second half.
- Illinois led with less than one minute to play.
In the end, the magnificently-named Robo Kreps and his 15 points were too much for Bruce Weber & Co. that day. UIC 57, Illinois 54.
-Fake Real Internet Quote That Puts It All In Perspective
Basketball can be fun without racism!
Maybe so, but it hasn’t been for the past decade in Urbana-Champaign.
Now, I’m not saying Illinois ought to Bring Chief Back. The problem isn’t so much that Chief Illiniwek is gone, it’s that this guy is, too.