Several columnists have pointed out that the current Illini seniors may be the first class of men’s basketball players since 1980 to play four years and never tip off in the NCAA tournament. This group includes Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill, and Maverick Morgan. Graduate transfers Mike Thorne, Jr. and Alex Austin may also miss out if the Illini don’t turn things around soon. Sixth-year graduate senior Tracy Abrams played on the 2012-2013 Illini team that beat Colorado in NCAA tourney before falling to Miami in the round of 32. In that game, a crucial out-of-bounds call mistakenly went against the Illini, leading to new rule that allows officials to consult replay in such situations. Isn’t that great?
I feel for these seniors. They didn’t choose Illinois to sit on the sidelines of the biggest event of the college basketball year. Of course, nothing is handed to you in major college sports (unless you’re Sean May in the 2005 national title game).
Let’s take a look back at that 1979-1980 season.
When coach Lou Henson was hired in 1975, Illinois had been to one NCAA tournament in the past 23 years (1962-63). That’s a hell of a drought. And it gives you an idea of what kind of salesmen Lou and his staff needed to be in order to get high school basketball stars to sign on with the Illini.
Somehow, they did it. Perhaps by letting recruits know that a new bar, The Esquire Lounge, had opened downtown? Perhaps not.
In any case, recruiting picked up in 1977, when IHSA standouts Eddie Johnson of Chicago Westinghouse and Mark Smith from Peoria Richwoods pledged the Orange and Blue. In his sophomore year, 1978-1979, Johnson hit one of the most famous shots in Illinois history to give the Illini the win over Magic Johnson and the #1-ranked Michigan State Spartans. This is what it looked like through 3-D glasses:
Just kidding. But seriously, this is why the people you see standing in awe of the latest HD television at Best Buy are always over 30.
That win was the highlight of the 78-79 season that saw the Illini start out 15-0 but finish 19-11.
In spite of the disappointing finish, the arrow did seem to be pointing up. For one thing, I was born while the Illini were losing at Michigan State near the end of the season. For another, team MVP Mark Smith and fellow star Eddie Johnson were just finishing solid sophomore years. Recruiting was also on the rise.
During 1979-1980 the Illini finished the regular season 16-12 and earned a bid to the NIT (when that was still a cool tournament). They beat three ranked teams and loss to six others. Speaking of those losses, the Illini dropped 13 games (including their eventual loss in the NIT Final Four) by an average of 5.08 points. They shot 48.1% and held opponents to 43.7%. Their worst loss of the season was by 14 at #9 Ohio State.
Here’s a silent film showing the Illini losing at #10 Purdue in January, 1980. We’re better than we look, because these are Purdue’s highlights. Also, the Boilermakers were pretty good. They made the Final Four that year and then beat Iowa in the third place game.
With four wins in the NIT, that Illinois team finished 20-12.
Although seniors Neil Bresnahan, Levi Cobb, Reno Gray, Rob Judson, and Kevin Westervelt never got to play in the NCAA tournament, they did do the Orange and Blue proud with a strong showing in the NIT that provided tournament experience to the young stars. Judson, of course, came back to Illinois as an assistant coach under first Lon Kruger and then Bill Self.
The class of 1980 helped build the Illinois basketball legacy that many fear has been tarnished during the current downward trend. The 1980-1981 season was the beginning of a run of 10 NCAA tournament appearances in 11 years, highlighted by the 1988-1989 Flyin’ Illini and the Final Four Battle in Seattle.
I wish I could say it looks like the 2016-2017 Illini are similarly poised to take off, but it just doesn’t. At least not yet. There are still eleven games left in the regular season. This team can still write their own chapter of the Illini story. Even if they don’t get to dance this year, let’s hope these seniors are remembered fondly for the effort they gave to the program and as the prologue to another fairytale run for the Orange and Blue.
Team Photo: Wikipedia. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52776014
Esquire photo: John Dixon, News-Gazette. http://www.news-gazette.com/multimedia/photogallery/2015-03-02/archives-esquire