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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Watch now: Tupper: Illini set for season to remember: But will those memories be of their success or what could have been?

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There’s reason to be sensitive when talking about just what qualifies as a tragedy or heartbreak during the COVID-19 world we now live in.

Losing life is a tragedy. A debilitating illness for a loved one is heartbreaking. So is a business that can’t make it due to shutdowns.

So any comments made here using such words are offered only in the context of our sports world, or what’s left of it.

That said, it was heartbreaking for college basketball fans to have the entire sport unplugged last March, just one day after the start of the Big Ten Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis.

The University of Illinois had one of those fun-to-watch, exciting teams that seemed to be on the rise at the perfect time. They looked very much like a team that could do some damage in the NCAA Tournament and the anticipation to see that was building.

Then the NCAA Tournament was scrapped and we never had a chance to see any of the drama play out. We were left with an empty feeling.

Now comes the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 25. When both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn decided this summer to forgo the NBA Draft and return for another season at Illinois, it kicked open a door to endless possibilities.

Illinois has a chance to produce its best team since the 2005 group that featured Dee Brown and Deron Williams. That team reached the national championship game and by the time they’d lost to North Carolina, most Illini fans were emotionally exhausted after going on a four-plus month ride that delivered a 37-2 record.

This team has a chance to equal that run in the NCAA Tournament. This team has a chance to go one step beyond and win the national title.

Coach Brad Underwood was exactly right when he said the success of this team, this season, will depend on how well it handles the dangers of COVID-19. That’s true of every team, but there’s little doubt that during this upcoming season, various teams will be temporarily derailed by players who are felled by the virus and by teammates who must be withheld for having close contact.

In the Big Ten, the current rule (it could be amended) says an athlete who tests positive must sit for 21 days. That’s an eternity when a team is scratching and clawing to keep up in a league that has seven teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25. Imagine it’s Ayo. Imagine it’s Kofi.

That 2004-05 Illini team won its first 29 games before losing the regular-season finale at Ohio State. They were the most dominant team in the country.

Don’t look for that to happen again. The league is just too deep and too talented.

Every week will be a game or two against a ranked Big Ten opponent and even though it might not be as hard to win on the road without a full contingent of screaming fans, travel will an unsettling factor given the uncertain winter COVID climate.

I hesitate to mention the most worrisome outcome of all.

With the virus on the rise everywhere, there’s no guarantee college basketball can reach its finish line. And wouldn’t that be the double gut punch for an Illini fan base that has been waiting for a return to national glory, only to have consecutive teams loaded with talent be pushed to the sideline by this invisible enemy that now seems to rule our existence.

I’ve covered Illini basketball for more than 40 years and the Flyin’ Illini of 1989 and the Dee-Deron Illini of 2005 stand as the modern day benchmarks for this program. Both groups reached the Final Four.

This team has a very realistic chance to do it again, with Cockburn standing as the primary difference-maker the other teams didn’t have. Imagine the Flyin’ Illini with a Shaq-like presence in the middle. Imagine the 2005 team with an imposing presence that could have slapped North Carolina’s Sean May aside like a fly.

Hang on for what figures to be a wild ride. Illini football has already been written off, but basketball — even without fans — stands as a beacon of great hope.

Will it be tumultuous? Yes.

Will it be played on fragile footing? No question.

Could it be the greatest Illini basketball season in our lifetimes? It absolutely could be.

But there are no guarantees we’ll even see it play to its conclusion. That would be the Illini fan’s version of a genuine tragedy.


Mark Tupper is the retired Executive Sports Editor of the Herald & Review. He can be reached at marktupper@barbeckbb.com

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