The Illinois Fighting Illini should be a national powerhouse in basketball, and it’s not even close.
If you grew up as a basketball addict like me, you eventually came across the 2004-05 Illinois Fighting Illini, led by guards Dee Brown, Luther Head, and future NBA All-Star Deron Williams. The Illini reeled off 29 consecutive wins to start that season, before falling to Ohio State in Columbus on the final day of the regular season.They entered the 2005 NCAA tournament with a 32-1 record, winning the Big Ten regular season and postseason championships. They were favored to win it all.
They were set up in a Chicago Regional that gave them a clear path to St. Louis and the Final Four.
The only issue was that the Arizona Wildcats were not trying to cooperate with how things were supposed to go. With just more than four minutes to play, Arizona led 75-60 over the top-ranked and only once-defeated Illini in the Chicago Regional Final.
The following onslaught of defensive pressure and 3-point daggers allowed Illinois to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in tournament history.
The Illini stormed back to win in overtime, 90-80, eventually falling in the national championship game to North Carolina.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniHoops) July 31, 2014
Since then, it has been all downhill for the Fighting Illini program. Then-head coach Bruce Weber has since moved on to Kansas State after not being able to keep top talent from Chicago in the state of Illinois.
It all began in 2007 when Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy basketball star Derrick Rose chose to leave his home state to play for John Calipari at Memphis. Calipari has since become a guru of sorts for point guards, sending standouts like Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, and Marquis Teague to the NBA.
Illinois hired John Groce in March 2012 to help bring basketball pride back to the state.
However, the defection of in-state talent has continued to spread. Another Simeon standout, Jabari Parker, left the state of Illinois in 2013 to play for Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke.
Parker’s sneaky athleticism and deadly scoring ability made Duke an immediate national contender, and would have been a huge get if Groce could have convinced him to come to Champaign.
With Parker headed to the NBA as the No. 2 overall pick to Milwaukee, there is another crop of nationally recognized prospects from Chicago emerging. The No. 1 player on the 2014 ESPN 100 recruiting rankings, Jahlil Okafor, is following in Parker’s footsteps in going to Duke.
The 6-foot-10 center from Chicago’s Whitney Young High School is a huge fan of Parker’s basketball success. He attended the McDonald’s All-American Game when Parker played as a high school senior, and remarked how proud he was to see his fellow Chicagoan shine.
“Seeing the crowd embrace him as they did, he deserves it more than anybody,” Okafor said. “Seeing everybody cheer that loud, I was really happy and just put like chills down my body. It’s something I can work hard for and maybe I can experience that next year.”
There seems to be a tremendous pride for Chicago, but there continues to be a disconnect between Illinois’ biggest state school and its biggest basketball talent hotspot.
Nothing is more indicative of these struggles than when top-ranked ESPN 100 power forward Cliff Alexander chose Kansas over Illinois in November.
Fans were crushed, but at least Illinois was able to snag a big name in the 2015 class. Small forward D.J. Williams — another Simeon product — chose Illinois over DePaul, Florida, Georgetown, and others.
This is a good sign moving forward for Groce and his staff. It is imperative that the Fighting Illini lock up Chicago’s finest if they want to return to prominence.
After a decade of mediocrity, Illinois needs its homegrown talent to help bring back something for its fans to cheer about.