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CHAMPAIGN — Fans wrapped around the floor of the State Farm Center for autographs and a chance at a meet-and-greet with the 1989 Illinois men's basketball team.

Thirty years after the Flyin' Illini captivated Champaign-Urbana — and, to a larger degree, college basketball — there was still a buzz when that team was honored last Saturday in an eventual loss to Penn State.

Fans roared at halftime when the team was introduced one by one. The current Illini know what the buzz was like. None of them were alive when the Flyin' Illini made their run to the Final Four, but they've been filled in on the popularity of that team.

That fan fervor is exactly why Kendall Gill, a member of that 1989 team, goes to bat for his alma mater with recruits.

“This is one of the things I tell them: If you go to Illinois and have any type of success whatsoever, people will never forget you," Gill said from the media room at the State Farm Center prior to the game. "Look at us, 30 years later, people still remember this team, honor this team, cherish this team."

Members of that team see progress in this season's team in head coach Brad Underwood's second season in charge.

“It has its peaks and valleys, but I think there’s a lot of young guys here," Nick Anderson said. "You keep them together, gain that experience, that maturity, that on-the-court experience. I think we’re going to be pretty good from here on out."

That 1989 team was known for its position-less style of play — a style that Underwood embraces. But there was also another backdrop to the Flyin' Illini: The team was built with players from the state of Illinois. 

Gill is from Matteson; Anderson, Marcus Liberty and Lowell Hamilton are from Chicago; Stephen Bardo from Carbondale; Larry Smith from Alton; and Kenny Battle from Aurora.

Translation: The Illini were landing the in-state kids and they made a difference. 

“It means a lot because I know that a lot of players stayed home and tried to win for their home state," said freshman Ayo Dosunmu, from Chicago. "That’s similar to what I’m trying to do. That’s one of my goals here."

This season's team has three players — Dosunmu, Aaron Jordan and Da'Monte Williams — on scholarship who are from the state of Illinois. Of course, Underwood and Co. have paid plenty of attention to Chicago's best talent and Dosunmu has helped pave the way for Chicago players to stay home — something the Flyin' Illini believe in.

“If we get back to what we had with those guys all coming down (Interstate) 57 to play here, it’s going to be back to the glory days," Battle said. "It’s gonna happen.

“The group of guys we have here now, they’re exciting. They’re playing hard and I love watching them. Even though the record doesn’t indicate the talent level, those guys had six or seven games they could have easily won. They’ve turned it around. I love it."

Gill, who works for NBC Sports Chicago, has heard the noise in the city pick up with regard to the Illini. Recently, he said, he was at a friend's AAU practice and all the coaches wanted to talk about was Illinois basketball.

“It’s good for Chicago kids who are in high school now to see success down here in Champaign and see everybody get fired up about the team because now it stirs interest," Gill said. "The interest was stirred up when we were in high school. The Illini have things buzzing up in the city of Chicago, which is where it needs to be. That’s where a large pool of talent is."

Of course, Illinois has gotten major contributions from players who weren't from the state of Illinois. Giorgi Bezhanishvili is from the Republic of Georgia. Trent Frazier came to Champaign from Wellington, Fla. Former Illini Deron Williams was from Texas. Underwood isn't going to narrow his scope to only include the state of Illinois, but understands how much talent is spread throughout high school gyms in the state.

Next season Kofi Cockburn and Antwan January are verbally committed to join Illinois, from Virginia and California, respectively. Television has turned from a regional to a national affair, giving recruits a chance to see programs from across the country.

"I always want to keep our best players in Illinois," Underwood said. "If the state has that much talent and those kids of guys in it, there's no doubt we want them to be right here. I don't want to limit and I don't want to discourage players from other states coming here because we're recruiting the state of Illinois, but obviously we want to keep them here."

There are more recruits in the state of Illinois that the coaching staff has its eyes on, with perhaps none bigger than five-star guard Adam Miller, part of the 2020 Class from Chicago Morgan Park.

Dosunmu laid the foundation for in-state kids in the Underwood era. Before him there was the Flyin' Illini, which is immortalized in Illinois lore. Their famous winged logo is on the floor of the State Farm Center, right next to the wording proclaiming it Lou Henson Court.

“I saw his work ethic and I still see how he’s developing right now today," Liberty said of Dosunmu. "Getting kids like him to come here maybe will open up the doors for other kids to come down here to Champaign because it’s a beautiful campus.

“We have the same thing Duke has; we have the same thing Kentucky has. Why not stay home, come here and play and build a legacy here?"


 

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter

Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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