Thursday, October 8, 2009

You can't trust the system

In ESPN's recently published "College Basketball Encyclopedia," a Sagarin ranking lists Illinois as the 6th best program of all time. That's right, with no championships and only four Final Four appearances, they're ranked No. 6. Just below a top 5 of Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina and Indiana. And just above Duke.

Jeff Sagarin, of course, is the guy who developed the mathematical equation that factors in a team's wins and losses along with margin of victory, strength of schedule and where the game is played, among other things he won't divulge. His ratings have been a mainstay since 1985 in USA Today. (I challenge you to name one person who reads this newspaper. Outside of a hotel guest.) They are the "computer rankings" that inform, to some extent, both the BCS standings and NCAA Tournament selections. Apparently they fail to factor in big wins (e.g. championships) or apply common sense.

The encyclopedia's rankings also give top 40 lists for each decade from the 1940s on. Here's how Illinois finishes:

1940s - No. 3
1950s - No. 2
1960s - No. 12
1970s - N/A
1980s - No. 4
1990s - No. 29
2000s - No. 6
Overall - No. 6

I've heard great things about the Whiz Kids, so maybe the 40s ranking is justified. (Who else is for a Gene Vance statue outside the Assembly Hall?) I can't speak for the '50s and '60s, except that I know no national titles were won. In the '70s the program dropped off the map. They never reached the NCAA Tournament that decade.

Lou Henson was hired in 1975 and it took him five years to bring them back to the postseason (the NIT in 1979-80). By the '80s the Illini were legit again, reaching the NCAAs in all but two years (1979-80, 1981-82). But still, the team only earned one Big Ten title that decade (1983-84) and made it to one Final Four (1988-89). Again, no national title.

The '90s were a step back (I choose to blame Bruce Pearl). Lon Kruger and a senior-led team won the Big Ten in 1998. The Illini never made it past the 2nd round in six trips to the tourney.

The first half of the 2000s were kind to us, as you all remember. Four Big Ten championships, two Sweet Sixteen exits, an Elite Eight trip and a national championship run. Self elevated the program and Weber built up a ridiculous 89-16 record in his first three years. That's a .848 winning percentage for those of you keeping count. Of course, in the last few years, the TV people haven't been dropping that stat so much.

As much as I'd like to think Illinois is the sixth best program in the history of the sport, I cannot. I suppose its been consistently pretty good, considering, but it seems too much weight is given to an era before a legitimate national tournament was put in place. And then there's the matter of national championships. Michigan State, Arizona, Florida, Connecticut, Syracuse -- even though they're comparatively late to the national scene, they all have that claim. Until we win a title, we're simply not an elite program.

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