Analysis: Forde’s Realignment Plan Leaves Illini Basketball Without Any Identity

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In the fantasy college sports world created by Sports Illustrated senior writer Pat Forde with his Monday cover piece titled “America, Realigned: A Radical Reimagining of the NCAA Landscape”, Illinois will find it difficult to find a fit in either of its two large revenue-producing sports.

We’ve detailed in an overall sense why Illini administrators, coaches, alumni and fans will likely have a major problem with the “Mid-American Conference” that Forde decided to stick Illinois in along with among others Notre Dame, Northwestern, Northern Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. 

Illinois Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) celebrates with fans after a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at State Farm Center.
Illinois Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu (11) celebrates with fans after a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at State Farm Center.Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports

We at Illini Now/Sports Illustrated understand this project was done with nothing more than football in mind but there is a line that should concern fans of the Illinois program on the basketball hardwood. 

“The conferences will work for basketball and other sports as well—in fact, it will be better for non-revenue sports in terms of travel cost savings,” Forde writes. “The 230-odd non-FBS programs that are part of NCAA Division I will remain aligned pretty much where they already are, with a few exceptions.” 

This simply comes down to how Forde and others want to define the word “work” because making this concept the permanent conference scenario for all sports would most certainly not “work” for anyone involved in Illinois men’s basketball, which one near to the athletics department could argue is as important (if not more so) than football in Champaign-Urbana. 

Imagine no Illinois basketball with conference games against Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State. That's not a world Illini fans want to live in for one second. 

This plan creates the same ripple effect to the Illini basketball program that Syracuse is going through now by moving from the Big East Conference, that properly defined who and what the program was, is and would be, to the Atlantic Coast Conference where they have no regional partner and no concept of self worth beyond the almighty dollar. 

  • Would Illini basketball be competitive? 

In all likelihood, the answer to this question is yes because of Illinois’ historical success against the programs in Forde’s fantasy “Mid-American Conference” and Illini’s ability to still control its recruiting footprint inside the state of Illinois while now, under head coach Brad Underwood, being able to cherry pick outside prospects like Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo from the New York area. 

Illinois has a historical winning record against every opponent in this league except Kentucky and Tennessee. The Illini are 4-11 all-time against the Wildcats but haven’t played UK since the 1984 NCAA tournament when the Illini lost to Kentucky 54-51 in the regional final where Kentucky were the last time to get the benefit to play a NCAA game inside its home arena of Rupp Arena. Illinois has a 24-point home win against Tennessee in the last meeting between the two schools on Jan. 17, 1988 but that was prior to two losses (1967 and 1985) in Knoxville, Tenn.

It may surprise some folks that Illinois has a 3-2 all-time record against Louisville including two straight wins in the NCAA tournament. The Illini defeated Pervis Ellison’s Louisville team 83-69 in the 1989 regional semifinal at the Metrodome in Minneapolis on Illinois’ path to the Final Four. Illinois advanced to the program’s first men’s basketball national championship game in 2005 by defeating Louisville in the national semifinal 72-57. The two programs have never played a basketball game on each other’s campus. 

In terms of basketball supremacy, Illinois would likely only have to worry about three programs (Kentucky, Louisville and Notre Dame) for the battle of the top of this conference. Tennessee has had several consistent seasons under Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes but based on the way Underwood has recruited in the last three seasons, the two Kentucky schools and Illinois would likely vie for the league title on an annual basis.

Western Kentucky, which has a rich basketball heritage and knocked out fifth-seeded Illinois from the 2009 NCAA tournament in the first round, would poise an annoying problem, especially with the recent way Rick Stansbury has been able to grab nationally relevant talent on the recruiting trail in a similar way to when he was at Mississippi State. 

  • A Rivalry Neither Head Coach Would Want
West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins (right) and Oklahoma State Cowboys head coach Brad Underwood (left) speak before the tip at WVU Coliseum.
West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins (right) and Oklahoma State Cowboys head coach Brad Underwood (left) speak before the tip at WVU Coliseum before a 2017 game.Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret Bob Huggins doesn’t like to play games against his former assistants and that would absolutely include Underwood. Prior to the first round matchup of the 2016 NCAA tournament, Huggins made it clear to anyone who would listen that he wouldn’t enjoy anything about his third-seeded Mountaineers playing 14-seed Stephen F. Austin. And he was more correct than he imagined. Underwood’s Stephen F. Austin team defeated WVU 70-56 in Brooklyn, N.Y., in what would be Underwood’s last victory with Stephen F. Austin. In his one season at Oklahoma State, Underwood and Huggins split the two games in the Big 12 Conference’s round-robin regular season schedule with each program taking its road game.

There is a clear reason Huggins, who served as Underwood’s boss at Kansas State from 2006-2012, doesn’t schedule his assistants such as Underwood and Frank Martin and it’s not because anyone in that trio prefers a cupcake version of a non-conference schedule. The two games annually between these two men would clearly be 80 minutes of pure agony basketball for the two of them. 

  • Nearly No Basketball History Between Illinois & Northern Illinois

Illinois and Northern Illinois have only played one basketball in the history of the two schools - a 80-61 win for the Illini inside then-Assembly Hall in 2009. The two programs are more noted for the players and coaches they’ve shared throughout the years. 

Before having his jersey retired following his career at Illinois, Kenny Battle signed with NIU and played for the Huskies from 1984-86 but the Huskies fired head coach John McDougal. Not long after that decision by NIU administration, Battle demanded his transfer release and the Illini were more than willing to find a home for the 6-foot-6 forward. Battle is still known as one of the best dunkers in Illini history but also scored 1,112 points in his two years with Illinois that included being named a honorable mention All-America selection in both years. 

After a successful playing career at Illinois from 1976–1980, Rob Judson was hired by then-new Illini head coach Lon Kruger to be his assistant coach and, more importantly, Kruger’s connection to the state of Illinois and Bill Self would retain him quickly realizing that the Judson family tree will always have Illini history written all over it. Rob Judson was the fourth member of his family to letter at Illinois. His father, who won Illinois letters in 1955-56, his uncles Paul and Howard also starred on the Illinois men’s basketball program. Paul Judson lettered from 1954-56, earning First-Team All-Big Ten honors his last two years. Howard Judson earned basketball monograms in 1944 and 1945 before a seven-year stint in major-league baseball as a pitcher with the Chicago White Sox (1948-52) and Cincinnati Reds (1953-54). As a prep, Rob Judson’s basketball career started as a four-year letterman for his father Phil, where he was half of the famed Judson twins who led tiny Hebron High School to the 1952 Illinois High School Association state championship where the town water tower is still, to this day, shaped and painted like a basketball honoring that team. In 2001, Judson got his first and only head coaching opportunity at Northern Illinois where he went 74-101 overall in six seasons that included a pair of 17-win campaigns.