By Joe Henricksen

Where does Illinois hoops program rank?

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By Joe Henricksen

I got to thinking and wanted to delve into this, so ...

There has been a whole lot of discussion about where the Illinois basketball program ranks among the 300-plus programs in the country. It's been in the conversation of late as a result of the coaching search to replace Bruce Weber. And for whatever reason, the number 15 has been singled out as this magical, powerful number as it relates to Illinois basketball and its validity, as in a "top 15 program nationally."

So where does it rank?

The factors are endless--and change over the years--when it comes to ranking the top college basketball programs. You have to balance history and current success. There is perception, which hinges so much on NCAA Tournament appearances, long tournament runs, Final Four trips, conference affiliation and championships, television coverage, coaching star power and player development--i.e. NBA draft picks. There are internal factors, including facilities, resources, recruiting base and fan interest.

The Illinois program can hold its own in many of these categories. That's what should make the program enticing to any prospective coach that athletic director Mike Thomas is trying to convince to take over the basketball program. But it should never be about trying to "convince" a coach to take a job when you're talking a program that is among the top 15 college programs.

While the Hoops Report hardly conducted a full, thorough survey on the matter, it has posed the question to many college coaches in recent weeks. In addition, a few high school basketball coaches in Illinois, just to get a perspective of what their perception is of the program, were polled. The question was simple: When you combine history and current success, along with potential, is Illinois one of the top 15 programs in the country? Yes or no. The results:

34 college coaches (28 assistants, 6 head coaches)
Yes: 2
No: 32

15 Illinois high school coaches
Yes: 4
No: 11

The next question was is it among the top 30 programs? And the results:
34 college coaches (28 assistants, 6 head coaches)
Yes: 34
No: 0

15 Illinois high school coaches
Yes: 12
No: 3

Illinois can boast about the history, tradition and throw around winning percentages and tournament appearances over the last 100 years, but the kids the coaches are recruiting don't care all that much about history. It's more about what have you done for me lately? Kids in Illinois today can still hang on to that tremendous 2005 Final Four team, but it's fading fast among teenagers as there have been just two NCAA Tournament wins since.

And when it comes to recruiting, an underrated aspect of recruiting success at the highest level and what prospects care about is how many pros the school churns out. Nearly every prospect believes they are NBA-bound in today's culture, even if 98 percent of them have zero shot of it happening.

"You often just have to play along with the kids and their people when they talk about the NBA as you recruit them," says one high-major assistant coach.

"It's amazing how big of a sell it is and advantage when you have pros playing every night in the NBA that came from your program," says another high-major coach.

Basically, it's free advertising for a college basketball program while showing potential recruits, "Yes, we pump out NBA players!" You better believe it's a huge deal for UConn to have Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Caron Butler, Kemba Walker, Charlie Villanueva, Rip Hamilton, Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien playing in the NBA.

"It's a huge plus to even have old greats who still resonate with kids and who they can still connect with today, even if they aren't in the NBA," says a high-major assistant. "You better believe we use that when recruiting against another program."

Adds another mid-major coach, "We're a mid-major program and even we have to convince kids they can make it to the league if they come to a mid-major program, even though the reality is the kid is going to be a nice, but not great mid-major player."

While the NBA isn't overflowing with Michigan State players, there are still a few, but a figure like Magic Johnson is still a phenomenal ambassador for Sparty to this day. And a Georgetown can throw out retired NBA legends like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson with its current collection of players in the league.

Which brings us back to Illinois. Currently, there are just two players from Illinois playing in the NBA--a superstar in Deron Williams and career role player, holding-on-as-long-as-he-can Brian Cook. The lack of NBA talent out of the Illinois program is startling in comparison to programs you would consider "top 15" in the country.

Consider this: since Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson went on to stellar NBA careers from the Flying Illini days in the late 1980s, the only Illinois players who have even stuck in the NBA are Williams, Cook and Luther Head. That's one legit, bonafide starting NBA player in more than 20 years.

While losing current sophomore Meyers Leonard would be a huge loss to next year's team, the program will at least get a charge from putting another player in the NBA.

A program like Indiana hasn't exactly pumped out NBA players, but it's still one that produced Isiah Thomas, featured a basketball icon in Bobby Knight, has five national championships and has that prestige.

Where does the Hoops Report rank the Illinois program? No, it's not a top 15 job, but it has always believed Illinois is clearly one of the top 10 percent of college coaching jobs and programs in the country, and it's easy to argue a top 25 program. And what is wrong with that? Nothing. Yet for some reason people have been getting a little bent out of shape about it all.

So what are the top college basketball programs? While it's true a list like this can be somewhat cyclical, this list broke down almost perfectly between the top 15 and the next 15.

This first list of college programs are the ones the Hoops Report clearly places in elite status, a group of 15 that you can't argue. This list is in alphabetical order. If you're going to argue any of these, don't come to my "Ranking College Programs Party" and just wait for the next list to unfold to debate. These are the iron-clad programs throughout the country, with national titles, strong conference affiliation, history, resources, current success, deep NCAA Tournament runs, players drafted by the NBA and All-Americans.

The Top 15
Arizona
Connecticut
Duke
Florida
Georgetown
Indiana
Louisville
Kansas
Kentucky
Michigan State
North Carolina
Ohio State
Syracuse
Texas
UCLA

OK, for argument sake, I tried to pick out the one or two programs people may possibly take issue with and disagree in that it is in the untouchable top 15: Texas and Indiana. Really, it's not even close.

The Longhorns have a monstrous athletic budget, along with a campus life in Austin that is pretty darn special and a very impressive recruiting base in talent-filled Texas. On the basketball side of things, Texas went to a Final Four and three Elite Eights in the last decade while going to 14 straight NCAA Tournaments and 18 trips in the last 19 years. Rick Barnes has averaged just under 25 wins a year in 14 seasons, while finishing the season ranked among the top 25 in 11 of 14 seasons. And how about pros? Kevin Durant is one of the greatest players on the planet. There is LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, T.J. Ford, Daniel Gibson, Royal Ivey, Tristan Thompson and Chris Mihm to name a few. The Longhorns belong in the untouchable 14. There is no debate.

And the only reason Indiana is even debatable is the struggles of the program just prior to this season. But we're talking five national titles, history, passion and a fan base that is tremendous. Plus, Tom Crean has the Hoosiers rolling again, in the Sweet 16 and with another loaded recruiting class coming in next fall.

Then you get into the second-tier progams at the high-major level. Here is where fans of respective schools can debate, start disagreeing and get the guns ready to fire off at those that doubt their program. But debate is healthy. And it would be difficult to get a consensus on the next 15 in the NCAA basketball pecking order.

While the Hoops Report can lock in the top 15 programs pretty easily, it can also clearly separate the next 15 programs from the remaining 300 in NCAA Division I. Here we can go on and on and debate all day long where each of these programs falls between No. 16 and No. 30. Where would the Hoops Report place the current Illinois program? Probably in that 20-25 range, right where the majority of the 34 college coaches polled placed the Illinois program.

The Next 15 (listed alphabetically)
Arkansas
Cincinnati
Illinois
Gonzaga
Marquette
Maryland
Missouri
Memphis
Michigan
Oklahoma State
Pitt
Purdue
Villanova
Wisconsin
Xavier

The omissions
There are a couple of programs where fan bases could get testy about not being among the top 30, such as those proud ACC fans supporting North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. But personally, the Hoops Report has always believed N.C. State was an overrated program. For starters, you never want to be stuck in the back yard of Duke and North Carolina. "Hey, kid. Don't look over there to the northeast. Those are our two conference rivals just miles away and two of the most storied programs in all of sports. If they don't want you, we'll take you." But more than that, this program has done little to nothing since coach Jim Valvano left in 1990. This year's Sweet 16 run is just the second time the program has advanced past the opening weekend of tournament since the late 1980s.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, has very little history. The program didn't do a thing until coach Bobby Cremins took over in the 1980s. And recently, the Yellowjackets have just five NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 16 years.

And the 10 All-Underrated Programs
Butler
Creighton
Dayton
Florida State
New Mexico
San Diego State
Texas A&M
UNLV
Virginia Commonwealth
Wichita State

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17 Comments

Joe- How would your list be different if you just ranked them over the past 10 years? I don't think schools like Illinois would be in the top 30 but Butler, San Diego State, Marquette, etc may be. I think the recent 10 years is a much better data set to rank the top 30. Would yours be any different? Thanks

Joe, but don't how scientific you got with this 'study' but as a fan, I am more than comfortable with the assessment. Let's just say your analysis is in the ballpark, keeping in mind that it is just one man's opinion, that still makes the Illinois basketball position one the most prestigious in the country.

As I go down your list, the one thing that stands out to me are the coaches associated with the the top programs. Point being,for the most part, a program is only going to be as good as the coaches it hires to run the program. To illustrate my point would Gonzaga be on that list if not for Mark Few? All things considered Illinois will either move up or down that list based upon the caliber of coach it hires. To me, it is a very good program that is a good coach away from being an elite one, all things considered.

Illinois is a good not great job, top 15 maybe? top 10 not even close. If I am coaching at a mid-major school or an asst. at a big time place sure I want that job. If I am at a top 15-30 job its a lateral move unless I a have some infinity for Illinois or the Big Ten unless you are wearing out your welcome at you current place and need to make a move before its your turn on the chopping block. The harder part about coaching at Illinois is regardless of the fertile recruiting that may be there for you in the state its still year and year out the fourth best job in the conference which means you are always fighting an uphill battle. Some years you may win the league but year in and year out Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana are going to have advantages over you and you still have Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan to deal with let alone someone like Northwestern or Minnesota who can be competitive. Dave Monson said it best on ESPN just a week ago that he regrets going to Minnesota because the top 3 schools are 10 programs and then the next mix of Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan are tough too....well change the name from Minnesota to Illinois and you can see why a guy like Shaka Smart says no. He is in demand and Illinois is not a destination job for someone with a good job.

I know this was a survey, but I feel like too much emphasis is put on "what have you done for me lately". We knew Weber wasn't giving us a flashy style of play, and along with that, not many flashy recruits. That doesn't mean the potential isn't there to churn out NBA talent. Here are four things that I feel can't be ignored when evaluating a program:

1. Resources. Illinois not only has good money for facilities and a priority on basketball, but we have the best (realistic) access to a top 3 basketball city in Chicago, not to mention close to St. Louis and Indy.
2. Competition. The Big Ten is undoubtedly the best conference in college basketball. Within that conference, Indiana is clearly the top job, but Illinois is arguably second.
3. Foundation. We have excellent underclassmen in place for another coach to come in.
4. Fan base/market. Potential NBA players want to be seen. Not only does the Big Ten have the most successful conference network, but with most of Chicago as a primary fan base, it's excellent exposure.

What you can't look at - recent success. Indiana is a top tier job nationally, and they were in complete SHAMBLES when Creen took over, now look at them. Illinois is clearly not on par with the likes of Kentucky, UNC, Duke, UCLA and Indiana, but we have far more going for us than many of the schools we're currently being compared with.

It would help if you would outline your crieria a little more clearly. You've downgraded Illinois a bit because their last final four was 7 years ago yet you've put schools in the top 10 with even bigger droughts. Texas only has 3 final fours in its history for pete's sake (2003 was the last). Do you think any recruits or sportswriters actually care about a school's athletic budget?
I'm not even sure what the case would be for putting Georgetown ahead of Illinois unless you require a championship or certain number of final fours. However, if you did that than Texas would also be out.
In Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown, Arizona, Florida and Ohio St. you've got several programs on your list that you deem as locks that most other people wouldn't put on their list at all.

To Stan: This is the exact reason we need lists like this in order to keep out of touch Illinois fans in reality. Are you seriously going to even put Illinois in the same breath with the likes of Louisville, Syracuse, Georgetown, Arizona, Ohio State, Florida. Lets see, Illinois can't win national titles, has two outright conference titles in 60 years!!! No NBA players. The program is on decline. Done nothing since 2005. It's a good program but not what you say it is Stan!

@Hoopdirt, what advantages do Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana have over everyone else in the Ten?

I am an Illinois fan. But I can not figure out how my fellow Illini fans are just so blinded!?!?!? The comments I hear are so ridiculous when I go on message boards. I was interested to see Texas on the list. Then see 14 straight tournament appearances; 18 of 19 year in tourney, three Elite Eights and Final Four in last decade. Average of 25 wins a year. NBA players galore! Damn, the Texas program is exactly what I want Illinois to be! Yet here I am and others complaining Texas is ahead of Illinois. Set me straight you did.

RichRod you are right on. Grew up in Kentucky, big hoops fan, moved here 10 years ago. And I saw that great little run from Self/Weber and things were booming. But fans here think they are so rapid and passionate about their college team. The Chicago area could care less about college basketball.

From the Carolinas. Degrees from South Carolina and NC State. But you are so right about NC State. This isn't the 70s and 80s. We are talking 25 years removed. Nice run right now. Les Robinson was awful. Sidney Lowe was terrible. And Sendek couldn't wait to get out of there. You realize Sendek was 72-88 career in the ACC?!?! Program just isn't anywhere near what it was and we going on near 3 decades. Great Stuff.

Know many guys in the coaching business. Talk to them. They will tell you. Illinois right there where they should be in that 15-25 range.

First of all Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan State spend more money on their basketball budgets than any other schools in the big ten. They have first class facilities, are cash cow programs, and have history on their side. Speaking of history look at this:

# of Big Ten titles: Purdue 22, Indiana 20, tOSU 20, Wisconsin 18, Illinois 17, Michigan and MSU 13

# Of Final Four Appearances: tOSU 10, MSU 8, Indiana 8, Michigan 6, Illinois 4

# of NCAA Championships: Indiana 5, MSU 2, Michigan 1, tOSU 1, Wisconsin 1
Illinois 0

Its a given that Indiana, Michigan State and tOSU are the best traditional programs in the Big Ten in the modern era. Top that with Michigan which is a name brand and i still think Illinois comes in 5th above Wisconsion and Purdue. If you want to flip Michigan with Illinois be my guest so then its still only the 4th best program in the conference no question.

Tiny: Great point and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a program in the top 15-25 in the nation. If you are it means your program can rise up a little and have a magical year here and there and if nothing else can be a consistent NCAA team and upper half team in a great conference. Thats the problem with the media and Illini fans...they will not accept the fact its a top 25 program and this is what a top 25 program looks like....make the tournament most of the time and have a great year once or twice a decade where they can win the big ten and go deep in the tourney. This is exactly what they have been and what they are. There are only so many elite programs in the country that can go into every year thinking they are a final four team and illinois is not one of those programs. But they should be an NCAA team every year or at least 3 out 4 years absolutely nothing wrong with that. You know it could be a lot worse you could be DePaul which will never have a chance to be a top 4 program or NCAA team in their conference on a consistent basis ever again.

@Hoopdirt, I see where you're coming from, however, as a basketball guy it doesn't stand to total reason. Again, when I look at a successful basketball program, I see a very good to great coach who led it there. Indiana was very good because Bobby Knight was very good, Michigan State is good because of Izzo, same thing with Ohio State and Matta. How big do you think Butler's basketball budget was before Stephens took them to where they are? For some historical perspective, how good was Duke basketball before Coach K arrived? How about Georgetown prior to the first John Thompson?

Not overlooking the factors that you've mentioned, at the end of the day, I believe a program will be as a good as the coach running it.

The opinion of Illinois fans is based on potential. We are not delusional. As the major [and alomost only] university in a populated basketball loving state the potetial is great. Where is the competition? Bill Self proved what can be done. Were he still around this discussion would not be taking place. Illinois would be in the top 10. Bruce Weber has only altered reality by his inability to recruit. Jerrance Howard has shown the potential while being an assistant with 3 top 15 classes in the last 3 years. Since we now live in a society that lives in the moment I would inmagine a great number of the respondents to your survey were speaking in current state of affair terms. I have no doubt the potential for Illinois with the proper leadership is well above many schools ranked higher and I am sure there are coaches out there who understand this.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on March 22, 2012 12:30 PM.

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