After a thrilling, exhausting victory over the gaggle of Jess Settles clones that are the Iowa Hawkeye White Rage Monsters, our beloved Illinois Fighting Illini have now earned the lusted-after double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. But more to the point: They have essentially secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, and are now just playing for seeding. This is what we were all waiting for.
As we wait until Friday — Friday! That’s so far from now! We very well could all be dead by then! — let’s sneak in one last round of the Illinois Basketball Power Rankings. The Big Dance! March Madness! Our Corporate Champions Over At Mercedes-Benz! Finally, our Illini get to be a part of this insane, corrupt, utterly wonderful tournament again.
15. Zach Griffith/Drew Cayce
One of the many, many pleasant things about having a basketball program that is well on its way to having deep, sustaintable talent over the next few years is no longer needing to check in on the walk-ons. Remember when we had to play walk-ons simply because there were no other bodies on the roster? I once legitimately talked myself into Will Tuttle.
13. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk
The redshirt seems like it’s about to be official, and it is another sign of progress that they did not end up needing him this year anyway. When Illinois starts redshirting hurt dudes rather than forcing them into action just so we have a few extra fouls to give, it means matters are improving. It is so, so nice to have matters improving again.
Speaking of matters improving: John Groce might get Akron into the tournament this year! He won the MAC! I’m actually happy for him; no hard feelings here, particularly now that the Illini are back where they are supposed to be. Plus: He has now officially confirmed everyone’s longtime suspicions that he is, indeed... a great MAC coach.
12. Samson Oladimeji
Poor Samson. The senior walk-on might have gotten in for a minute or two on Senior Night, but, as his damn luck would have it, he had mono and couldn’t play. Everybody loves him, and he gets to say he got to travel to a tournament game, so hopefully it was all worth it. (Wait, he does get to go to the tournament, yes? He damned well better.)
11. Tevian Jones
The brief boomlet where it looked like he might have a Kipper-esque resurgence appears to have passed. You look around, and you wonder how much longer he’ll even remain on this team; suddenly, the guy with limitless potential is a junior, and one who looks a little worse every time he’s on the court until he doesn’t get out there at all. I honestly will be (pleasantly, but still) surprised if we see him again in an Illini uniform.
At least we’ll always have this:
10. Tyler Underwood
Coach’s Kid got a Make-A-Wish Foundation start on Senior Night, and on the offensive end, he didn’t look half bad; he sure looks more capable of a post pass to Kofi than Trent Frazier has the last few weeks, that’s for certain. And then Iowa’s worst offensive player smoked him on the other end, and he sat for the rest of the game, as he should. I remember wondering when we hired Brad Underwood whether or not Tyler would become a McCaffery-esque weapon for this team. (He actually got legitimate minutes when he was at Oklahoma State.) That he didn’t is yet another sign of progress. And since this is the last time I’ll ever be able to say this: It remains disorienting, even disturbing, to watch what looks like a digitally de-aged Brad Underwood running around the court.
9. Jermaine Hamlin
He’s big enough that it was probably worth burning a year of eligibility just to come in when Kofi and Georgi and Kipper all have three fouls. But he only has three years to figure out what else he has to contribute, other than me making a ton of “Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill” cracks when he lumbers onto the court.
8. Kipper Nichols
I was in attendance for that Madison Square Garden game where he went nuts, and while he has been mostly infuriating on the offense end since that game, his final State Farm Center appearance was the best Kipper we’ve seen since that sad afternoon in New York City. I would say, “if Kipper could do that all the time, we’d have something amazing” but we all know Kipper is incapable of doing anything all the time. So I’ll just be grateful for another sporadic cameo from Good Kipper, applaud him for his time here and not cross my fingers for anything more. I’ll miss him, but not really.
7. Alan Griffin
You’re starting to see the downsides to him: He might be one of those players who doesn’t handle affluence that well. Ever since that Northwestern game, he’s looked too quickly for his shot and has seemed out of flow with the offense. And, even worse, the defense has lapsed, and he’s starting to lose out on those hustle rebounds and loose balls that made him so invaluable. Underwood is right to start to ease him out of the rotation during crunch time until he can earn his way back. I have little doubt that he ultimately will.
6. Giorgi Bezhanishvili
He has at last gotten his post touch back, at least a little, even if it is now clear that he never did quite figure out how to play at the same time as Kofi. (Though Underwood has still been trying it more often lately.) I no longer think the jump shot is ever going to come, which isn’t the worst thing; there will eventually be actual stretch-fours in this offense, so we won’t have to pretend we can turn him into one. Instead, he can go back to what he probably always should have been: A starting center for a team that doesn’t have Kofi Cockburn, and a backup center for one who does. I still love him, and so do you. Plus, the longer hair and beard is working for him!
5. Trent Frazier
The defense is still there, and he’s always going to have a place in Illini fans hearts for being the guy who was here from the very beginning – and truly exposed how Mark Smith was never going to be the guy here – but boy is it difficult to watch his shooting struggles right now. I know, I know, shooters shoot, but when he threw up that 3-pointer with 20 seconds on the shot clock with the Illini holding a two-possession lead, I had a similar rage stroke to the one that Brad Underwood had. I know Frazier will snap out of it, but I’m not sold anymore that it’ll happen in the next two weeks, and those two weeks are the only weeks that count. He has to play because of the defense, but he has a cold, dead hand at the worst possible time.
4. Da’Monte Williams
I’ve spent three years waiting for him to turn into Frank Williams — my god they move exactly the same — and just around the time I finally accepted that, nope, he’s just a defensive whiz kid, stop expecting anything else… he became the only 3-point shooter I trust. Life’s a rich pageant, kids. He is guaranteed right now to be your uncle’s favorite player — he’s not hot dogging it! he does stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score! he does the little things that make you win! — which is particularly amusing, because I guarantee you your uncle hated Frank. There aren’t many players in college basketball I want on the floor more when we’re up one, on defense, with time running out.
3. Andres Feliz
Feliz still drives me nuts sometimes with some of the drives he puts up, but that I-think-I’m-a-foot-taller-than-I-really-am mindset is what makes him great, and so vital. I went from “Feliz is such a scrapper, what a help for the actual talented players on this team” to “how are we going to survive without this guy?” in the span of about two months. When he comes back to visit next year, and every year thereafter, I bet he brings the house down.
2. Kofi Cockburn
Not only is he not an NBA prospect this year, I don’t see how he’ll ever be one. These guys have to be able to shoot anymore. He’s basically a massive, more imposing, more defensively terrifying raw-er Deon Thomas right now, and if Deon didn’t get a sniff 30 years ago, I don’t know how Kofi gets one when the way the NBA runs today. (That said: I never thought Meyers Leonard would be draining treys either.) I might be telling myself all this just to feel better, because if I’m right, Kofi is a four-year Illini and might just be the most incredible four-year player we’ve had this side of Dee Brown. Every game, he does something that makes you go, “Oh, I guess he knows how to do that now too.” Every game I watch him make a play that has me jumping around the house acting like I just posterizing somebody. I can’t believe we have a guy like this. We never have a guy like this. We’re so lucky. And he’s just getting started.
1. Ayo Dosunmu
The Illini Inquirer guys had a great discussion on their podcast after the Iowa game: Ayo’s gotta have his jersey up in the rafters at some point, right? Even if he only plays two years – and that’s probably the case, though I remind that he’s still only barely showing up at the end of the second round — he has, largely by himself (and Kofi’s self), turned around the entire perception of this program. How many games has he personally won for Illinois this year? He still needs that jump shot for the NBA, but even if Illinois goes out in the tourney first round and he leaves, he might be the central most important Illini basketball figure over the last decade. He has secured his legend already, no matter what. Honestly: I’m just grateful for him. He has made something I care about very deeply, way too deeply, once again provide joy in my life. My life’s better because Illinois basketball is good again. And Ayo is the reason why. So thanks, kid. You’ve made an old fart from Mattoon very happy.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, national columnist for MLB.com and the founder of Deadspin. He grew up in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997.