Heat Checks and Hail Marys – Tournament Edition

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular & Big Sports Radio

March 24, 2024

The B1G Tournament was a huge success for the Illini and now they’ve followed that up with the first Sweet Sixteen trip since 2005. The Illini will face Iowa State on Thursday in Boston. The road doesn’t get any easier, but other teams aren't happy about having to play this Illini basketball team.

Brad Underwood courtesy Illinois Athletics

Heat Check #1 – Why is a Sweet Sixteen So Important

The Illini have made it out of the wilderness of missing the Sweet Sixteen. After 2005, the Weber era ended with a whimper, the Groce Era never did anything, and the Underwood Era has been about returning the Illini basketball program to national relevance. We can say that has happened. The Illini are players on the national stage, again.

Anecdotally, we hear from so many prospective high school players that they watch the NBA most of the time - until the conference tourneys and the NCAA Tournament hit the airwaves. By winning the conference tournament and coupling that with an extra week of media attention that a Sweet Sixteen appearance earns, the Illini are getting some additional “facetime” with the very individuals they are recruiting to join the team. The Illini also earn some valuable street credibility by making it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Does a Sweet Sixteen appearance mean the Illini have done all they can do in a season? No, Sweet Sixteen appearances are not the end goal. But, by getting into the tournament every year (the Illini are one of only three B1G teams – and just one of 14 teams nationally to earn a bid in each of the last 4 NCAA Tournaments), these bids give the Illini a chance to make a Sweet Sixteen run (or better). The more experience a team gets in the tournament, the better the odds of getting the additional coverage.

It's a circular reference, but if you’re in the tournament more, you’re apt to be in the Sweet Sixteen more often and the more often you do that, the greater the odds of capturing the interest of a recruit that is needed to get your team into the NCAA Tournament regularly.

The best example is this year is Gonzaga’s 9th consecutive Sweet Sixteen, tying North Carolina from 1985-93 and Duke from 1998-06 for the most ever.

Keep it up, Illini!

Heat Checks #2 – Recruiting Pitches

Under Brad Underwood’s leadership, the Illini have a variety of ways to sell high school players and transfer portal players on joining the team. Adding a Sweet Sixteen appearance is a key selling point with prospective players. Let’s look at other highlights:

  • B1G’s winningest team in league play over the last five seasons (.690)
  • 69 B1G wins from 2019-20 through 2023-24 are the most in school history over a five-year stretch
  • Only one of five schools with five straight 20-win regular seasons
  • 2021 & 2024 B1G Tournament Champions
  • 2022 B1G Regular Season Champions
  • 3 consensus All-Americans (and television announcers are proclaiming Terrence Shannon, Jr. should've been #4 on this list, along with Ayo once and Kofi twice)
  • 7 first-team All-B1G Selections
  • 2 All B1G Transfers in the 2023-24 season (Shannon & Domask)
  • One of the most competitive NIL programs
  • One of the best Strength & Conditioning coaches in the country (if not the best)
  • One of the top facilities in the country (Ubben)

About the only thing the Illini “need” to complete the recruiting pitch is a National Title and maybe a one-and-done player. Admittedly, the transfer portal has made the one-and-done player much less important and more of a “nice to have” – as teams featuring older players are much better at winning National Titles.

Heat Checks #3 – NIL Thoughts on Donor Fatigue and Combating It

The Sweet Sixteen appearance opens the door to “recruiting” more NIL donors. This isn’t easy. I had conversations with Ohio State insiders who said the Buckeyes weren’t looking to pay big dollars for a head coach who would expect large NIL support for the basketball team. This means even the mighty Buckeyes, the kings of B1G NIL are dealing with donor fatigue and realize the pool for NIL dollars is not infinitely deep. In order to protect their football program dollars, they don't really want competition from the basketball program for NIL funds.

If the Illini can get even more support for the basketball program (and for the football program, too), those funds going to be needed more than ever. Why?

Two years running, the Illini have proven to the NCAA basketball world that the Transfer Portal can be used to fuel an NCAA Tournament team.

  • In the 2022-23 season, the Illini replaced five regular starters (and 10 total players) while losing 86% of its points, 80% of its rebounds and 83% of minutes played – and returned to the NCAA tournament. That makes teams understand the importance of managing your roster and a huge part of that is operating effectively in the Transfer Portal.
  • In the 2023-24 season, the Illini had Marcus Domask made first and second team All B1G. The transfer from Southern Illinois University shocked everyone outside of his parents, the Illini coaching staff, and team to make a huge difference for the Illini in one of the premier basketball conferences in the country.

The Transfer Portal will be looked at as a key resource for teams. They will be using newer NCAA NIL rules to supercharge Transfer Portal success. More teams will be dipping the proverbial toe into the portal and NCAA Tournament appearances are worth paying a lot of money to earn. Expect the competition to be fierce and expensive for the players who make a difference on the court. Each year, the marketplace will get tougher and more expensive as teams understand how important the Portal is to winning.

If a team is going to play in the portal, make sure that your team doesn’t end up one player short of a big NCAA Tournament run. The best way to look at this conundrum of donor fatigue is to raise even more money - and make sure there’s plenty of Final Four fun to fight off donor fatigue.

Of course, that is easy to type and much harder to execute. Icon for the Illini must make certain donors realize the program is asking for more money - and the main reason for the ask is to win enough to make sure donors receive the best donor experience possible (which means deep tourney runs).

Heat Check #4 – Media Opinions Aren’t Always Grounded in Knowledge of the Game

One of my better moments in the B1G Tournament began with a media member muttering that Coleman Hawkins didn’t hustle on defense. I asked what gave him that impression and he noted that on an inbounds play, Coleman didn’t get back to his man quick enough and it caused Dain Dainja to commit a foul.

On the surface one might agree with the statement. Depending upon the context of the play, it very well might be a correct assertion. Just not this time. Not at all.

The play in question, Coleman Hawkins flushed a dunk in the open court. The ball was inbounded to a man on the left of the Illini basket, then thrown almost full court to Coleman’s man on the left wing (approximately at the free throw line extended).

Somehow, Coleman made it on the run to get down the court just slightly behind the long pass. Let's take that apart, though. Essentially, after dunking the ball, Hawkins followed his body’s momentum under the basket, turned and sprinted back on the court, and Coleman beat 3 other Illini players down the floor. AJ Storr made a nice move past Hawkins and Dainja fouled him. After this, the writer’s conclusion was that since Coleman didn’t beat the pass downcourt, he was the issue. Wow!

I explained the situation and it appeared that a passage or two previously typed on the computer had been quickly deleted. I guess that was my good deed for the day. If I hadn’t been there, some fan would’ve read that later in the day or on the next morning and that fan would've assumed Coleman didn’t hustle. How wrong that assumption would've been.

Part of the value proposition of covering the Illini for the IlliniGuys is I've had the privilege of coaching AAU teams based in Atlanta, GA, Central Illinois, and Dallas, TX, and this experience has provided me an additional perspective and a bit of an understanding of the game of basketball (Brad Sturdy and Kedric Prince have coached longer than I have, and I coached AAU for a decade plus). It came in handy at the B1G Tournament.

As an aside, one of the first drills done to teach players the value of passing is taking the fastest player on the team putting him on one baseline and betting him that I can get the ball to the other baseline faster than he can get there.

The player always assumes it’s a race and I’m dribbling. Thus, in his mind, he’ll easily be able to win this race. One baseball throw gets the ball down to the other baseline so quickly that the “race” is over before it starts. The moral to the story in basketball is pass the ball, don’t dribble it.

The moral to the story in media that the IlliniGuys attempt to adhere to is understanding the game and giving the player the benefit of the doubt. No one shoots an airball on purpose. Guys are trying their best and coaches are doing their best, too. We might not always agree with what is done or how it's done, but assuming someone isn't trying requires hard evidence. This was a good example of that behavior coming alive.


The Illini are in their first Sweet Sixteen since 2005. They have a matchup against a tough defending Iowa State team. Thursday night should be a fantastic game for Illini and Cyclone fans. Only one team can win. Let's hope the Illini end up on top and have the opportunity to play for the right to go to the 3rd Final Four of my lifetime. It will be a heck of a battle.

Go Illini!




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