State teams seemed primed for best finish in years
Remember March Madness?
It's easy to forget now, more than two months later, but college basketball teams in this state were on the verge of a milestone, thanks to Illinois and Bradley.
For the first time since 2007, when Illinois and Southern Illinois played in the Big Dance, this state almost surely would have sent multiple Division I men's teams into the NCAA tournament.
Bradley had earned an automatic berth by winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
Illinois was on the court warming up for its Big Ten Conference tournament opener when the season came to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Illini probably didn't need to win the Big Ten tourney. With a 21-10 season the Illini looked destined for their first NCAA shot since 2013.
Before last season teams around the state needed victories like local food pantries now need donations. The state went without any representation in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 NCAA tournaments.
Northwestern not only made the 2017 NCAA tournament but actually won a game too. Unfortunately, the Wildcats were the only Illinois team in the field.
Loyola was the state's lone representative in the 2018 NCAA tournament, but the Ramblers did our state proud with a historic run to the Final Four.
In 2019 Bradley was the sole Illinois team in the NCAA tournament but couldn't match Loyola's 2018. Still, the Braves were back for more this season, having gone 23-11 under coach Brian Wardle, a Hinsdale Central graduate.
Other teams were improved this year also. Southern Illinois was a surprising 16-16 under first-year coach Bryan Mullins, a Downers Grove South graduate.
Northern Illinois went 18-13 this season, just the Huskies' second winning record in nine seasons under coach Mark Montgomery.
Loyola wasn't likely to make the NCAA tournament, but the Ramblers had another season that made Sister Jean smile, going 21-11.
DePaul won its first nine games -- including wins over Texas Tech, Boston College, Iowa and Minnesota -- before fading to 16-16.
The future looks good for many of these teams also, especially the Illini.
Illinois has some standout recruits on the way: Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins. Together those three rank 14th nationally, according to both 247Sports and Rivals.
If Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn change their minds about the NBA draft and go back to Champaign, the Illini could have their best season since the 2004-05 run to the national championship game.
Dosunmu and Cockburn might be wise to return. Neither is projected to be picked in the draft's first round, and maybe not the second round either.
SIU's Mullins seems like a coach with a very bright future. Unfortunately for the Salukis, they will have to find their way past Bradley and Loyola in the MVC, both of which appear to have bright futures also.
NIU will have to find a way to replace all-time leading scorer Eugene German.
It's disappointing to think of what might have been, sure. But there's reason for optimism about 2020-21.
All we need is a season we can see through to the end.