B10 Northwestern Illinois Basketball

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili, right, smiles as he celebrates with guard Andres Feliz after scoring a basket against Northwestern during the first half of Wednesday's first-round game in the Big Ten Tournament.

While Brad Underwood is trying to help Illini basketball fans end an excruciating string of joyless Selection Sundays, he’s also trying to bolster one of the nation’s most valuable college sports properties.

This week Forbes magazine released a surprising list of college basketball’s most valuable teams and based on three-year averages that take into account things like ticket revenue, media rights, booster donations, sponsorships and royalties, Louisville’s basketball program makes more profit than any program in the country. The rankings are based on filings by each school’s athletic department to the NCAA and the Department of Education.

That’s surprising given Louisville’s recent lack of on-court success and the fact that the school has had to weather a prostitution scandal, an FBI probe and the firing of its head coach, Rick Pitino.

Kentucky is ranked No. 2, followed by Indiana, Duke, Kansas, Ohio State, Syracuse and Arizona, which checks in as the nation’s 8th-most valuable college basketball team.

No. 9? Yep, the Illini, followed by Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan State, Maryland, Arkansas and Michigan.

Figures used were from the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.

The inclusion of the University of Illinois as one of the country’s Top 10 programs in terms of profit will shock some, given the fact that Illinois’ record during that three-year reporting span was 54-48 overall, 22-32 in Big Ten play and with zero NCAA Tournament appearances.

Whatever the value of the Illini basketball program, it’s understood that value will soar once the school fields a team that contends for a Big Ten championship, becomes nationally relevant and begins filling the State Farm Center to capacity again.

Any comments about the NCAA Tournament drought and the fact that this season’s record of 12-21 represents the most losses in program history are unnecessary, because they’re understood by every Illini fan. This is old news.

The off-season debate will center on how much progress was made this season, how much growth can realistically be expected from this spring until next autumn and whether a major leap in performance can be prepared to be unleashed once November rolls around.

National analysts seem to believe that kind of improvement is possible, and I agree. It’s possible. But it’s not guaranteed. If there was significant and badly needed cultural growth this season, it has to be followed by growth measured in more wins, fewer losses and the return of a smile on a Sunday in mid-March in 2020.

It’s no damn fun to reach the sixth consecutive Selection Sunday without a local team to root for. It’s frustrating.

As a college basketball fan I’m over-the-moon thrilled to have a player like Duke freshman Zion Williamson to watch and his return action this week following his frightening knee injury was staggering. The dude went 13-for-13 against Syracuse. Who does that?

I look forward to what head-shaking highlights he might deliver in the next three weeks in his one and only foray into March Madness.

But on my list of things I’d hope to see in a college basketball season, more success from Duke is not on the first page. Thinking about a 9th-seed Illini team getting ready to play someone like Utah State in an opening-round NCAA Tournament game in Tulsa could get me geeked.

It seems like a modest request, but at least it would be a start.

I’ll fill out a bracket this week, out of duty and curiosity more than exhilaration. I’ll get bleary-eyed watching games and will no doubt leap off the couch the first time a nameless kid with crazy hair heaves in a 35-footer at the buzzer to give CBS its first “One Shining Moment” snippet of 2019. That stuff is priceless.

But mostly I’ll be hoping Giorgi Bezhanishvili spends the summer learning to guard near the rim without fouling. I’ll be hoping there are no unexpected Illini transfers and that Ayo Dosunmu understands what most of us believe we understand – he needs a lot more refinement in the realm of college basketball before making the leap to the pros.

I’ll be hoping freshmen Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin are preparing to break out in a big way as sophomores. And I’ll be hoping Brad Underwood and his staff add one more compelling piece with the remaining scholarship they have to fill.

Over the past six years Selection Sunday has lost some of its luster. That, apparently, isn’t figured into the Forbes rankings.


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


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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