CHAMPAIGN – This is the moment that fans of the program have been waiting a while for. How long exactly depends on your perspective.
For some, the wait have been since last March, when a promising Illinois season was stopped before they could even take part in their NCAA Tournament in seven years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Illini themselves mark that wait at 257 days, when they had to return from Indianapolis to Champaign after the season was called off. But the wait could actually be much longer for this season if you look at it in a different way.
For the first time since the 2004-2005 season, when that memorable team went all the way to the National Championship game, there is true expectation that this Illinois team could contend for a crown.
Memories of Dee, Deron, and Luther certainly are on the minds of the fan base as they look forward to see what Ayo, Kofi, Trent and others can do to help bring home an elusive title to Champaign.
It starts on Wednesday as Illinois faces North Carolina A & T at the State Farm Center as part of a three-game stretch held at the venue featuring four teams. Chicago State and Ohio are also part of it, marking the first time that a men’s basketball game not featuring Illinois will be held since the last Illini Classic in 1995.
Brad Underwood has spent the last three years building back a program that had slipped from the top to near the bottom of the conference for the past decade. Now his eighth-ranked Illini get the chance to make their dreams along with those for a success-starved fan base come true.
“To say its easier when you’re got a program with such deep tradition and history and it’s been done before. There’s just a path we had to follow to get there,” said Underwood. “There were speed bumps, and it was not easy, and yet I’m awfully proud of the way we built this and how our staff has put together a great recruiting class.”
Getting high-level players in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to the team has certainly elevated the team’s play on the court. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams provide a veteran presence in the starting lineup while Giorgi Bezhanishvili hopes to return to his freshman year play level after a down 2019-2020 season.
Holy Cross transfer Jacob Grandison along with freshman Adam Miller (2020 Illinois Mr. Basketball) and Andre Curbelo join the team as well, hoping to contribute to a season that may end with a deep run into the spring.
“There’s so much for us to prove yet,” said Dosunmu. “It’s 0-0. We have no stats, nothing. We haven’t accomplished anything. Outside noise, we love it, we welcome it, we know the team we are, but we still have to prove it.”
Many are expecting, and hoping, they will do so over the coming months.