COLUMN: The Road To A Big Ten Basketball Title Must Go Through Champaign

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- For the first time in a decade and a half, the road to a Big Ten Conference men’s basketball regular season championship must come down Kirby Avenue in Champaign.

With all due respect to the fine people at Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, Illinois is a favorite to win the 2021 Big Ten regular season title and this isn’t some small accomplishment. The Big Ten is going to be the most difficult league title to win because of its exorbitant amount of talent, depth and coaching acumen. Assuming we get to experience the greatest single-elimination tournament on the planet (and Lord, please don’t let this God forsaken virus force us to miss it for two years in a row), a top seed in the NCAA tournament could go to the Big Ten team sitting on top of the the league mountain when the 280 games of conference play are over. And let me repeat: that league title-holder could be Illinois. Yeah, these haven't been common thoughts held in Illini Country in a long time. Too long.

The return announcements of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn represent the living embodiment of the vision of Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman on March 11, 2017, when he announced the firing of John Groce and the subsequent search for the program’s third basketball coach since 2012.

“For us, we have a basketball program that we all expect to compete for Big Ten and national championships year in and year out,” Whitman said what is now 1,239 days ago. “I was here at the peak. I was here 10 years ago. I saw the environment at State Farm Center (then called Assembly Hall) when you couldn’t find a ticket. Every game was an event. Every fan was in an orange shirt. The waiting list for season tickets was thousands of people long. I remember standing in the back of the crowd and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when the pre-game video (from the movie ‘Ali’) went up on the board playing ‘the champ is here!’ That’s what we’re striving for year in and year out. That was 10 years ago and if we’re not careful, it’ll be 30 years ago.”

Whitman now knows there’s a teenager who next summer could be old enough to possibly get his/her driver’s license but also doesn’t know what it is like to watch an Illinois team hang a Big Ten basketball championship banner. The rekindling of Ayo and Kofi for one more go-around of college basketball makes that drought seem less daunting to overcome now.

In a mere 17-hour period, Illinois basketball fans went from wondering how another program rebuild was going to materialize (albeit with more confidence in the architect Brad Underwood) to wanting this party feeling to extend through this entire weekend. The 'see ya later' to Dosunmu suddenly became a 'not-before-I-see-you-first,' as the star guard decided becoming a preseason All-America candidate and an Illini icon sounded like a better title than second-round NBA pick. And as enormous as Dosunmu’s announcement was for his legacy, the Illini program and the chances to, using his language, “make history," it’s hard to envision anything being bigger than the return of a 7-foot, 290-pound monster who knows how to create havoc in the not-normally-frazzled Big Ten. As Illinois fans were just getting their heads around “Year Three” of Ayo, Cockburn decided twice in Champaign may just be as nice.

Nothing is certain anymore in the coronavirus world we live in. However, if there’s a season, Illinois is going to be ranked in preseason polls for the first time since 2010 (10 years ago), have a chance to win a league title for the first time since 2005 (16 years ago) and have an All-American player since 2006 (15 years ago).

Are Iowa and Wisconsin returning every one of their starters from last year’s challenging and talented squads? Yes. Is Michigan State going to reload with a Hall of Fame coach (Tom Izzo), an elite transfer in Joey Hauser and top freshmen? Yes. Is Michigan’s Juwan Howard impressing early and often at his alma mater on the recruiting trail? Yes. But Illinois has a roster that in terms of experience, star power and talent resembles the 2004-05 team that was ranked No. 1 and got within a three-point shot falling from the program’s first national title. Underwood is going to roll out at least six guards this coming year he feels is ready to contribute on both ends of the floor in a Big Ten Conference game. With the return of Cockburn, Underwood also has the dueling bigs combination of Kofi and Giorgi Bezhanishvili along with the development of Holy Cross transfer Jacob Grandison, who already knows what it is like to average double-figure scoring in a Division I league (13.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg in 2018-19). This roster of ready-made players for a Big Ten fight could likely be 10 players deep.

In what will be the ultimate challenge for Underwood with what is without a doubt his most talented roster ever, the Illini coach must now figure out a way to coordinate the minutes for all the talent at his disposal. Oh, what a miserable task that’s going to be for the head man who’ll turn 57 years old this December. Those are the kind of problems Duke, Kansas, Villanova and Kentucky deal with. Those are the kind of complications the late Lou Henson dealt with in the late 80 and early 90s. Those are the kind of difficulties Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber dealt with a few decades ago in Champaign. You know what kind of problems those are? Winning problems.

For kids that are planning on attending or returning to school (in whatever form that may be) at the University of Illinois, you might want to ask your older sibling, your parents, your aunt and uncles or ask your grandparents. They'll tell you Illini basketball used to have those kind of problems. The homecoming of Ayo and Kofi means those problems are upon us again starting in this 2020-21 season.

Illini fans always wondered what it might be like to travel back to when they had a relevant basketball program to cheer for on an annual basis. Whitman was charged with making that happen again. Go ahead and set the computer to Aug. 1, 2020 and fire up the flux capacitor because we’re here now. Ayo and Kofi’s decisions this weekend have put Illini basketball back to the future.