To the Illini Family,
For several weeks, I have been in ongoing conversations with Big Ten colleagues and officials about the methodology we are using to determine the men’s basketball regular-season champion – discussions that have only intensified since the final horn sounded in the Michigan-Michigan State game on Sunday afternoon. Despite our university’s best efforts to achieve an equitable outcome that fairly recognizes the performance of our men’s basketball team, we know now that nothing will change.
In basketball, I believe teams deserve the title “conference champion” when they have proven themselves to be superior to their peers through their on-court performance for the duration of the season. In normal years, teams play the same number of games, making this an apples-to-apples, objective evaluation. Unfortunately for all of us, this is not that year. This year, we have many elite teams, including two that finished their seasons with 16-4 and 14-3 records, respectively. The 15% difference in the number of games played presents an apples-to-oranges comparison that is not easily resolved.
Our request was simple: in a year unlike any other, do what we have shown a willingness to do repeatedly during the past 12 months – act in the best interests of our student-athletes, pivot when needed, and do the right thing. In a year where, because of the different numbers of games played, we cannot fairly distinguish one team from another, declare Michigan and Illinois co-champions of the regular season. It was a straightforward solution to a complicated problem.
We should not have had to advocate for ourselves – this is the right outcome for the Big Ten and one that it should have proactively sought. But nonetheless, we were left to fight our own battle, and despite our advocacy, I learned late yesterday that our efforts were unsuccessful. Michigan will remain outright champions.
To be clear, we have not endeavored to take anything away from Michigan. They have compiled an exceptional season and deserve the championship they have already had the pleasure of celebrating. They are the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and I expect they will make a deep run in the national tournament. They earned their title, and we are not looking to diminish their accomplishments.
But Illinois earned that title as well. Co-champions are the norm in the Big Ten. As a league, four times in the last 15 years we have celebrated multiple champions, including just last season, when three teams lifted banners in their buildings. Having talked to people involved in those celebrations, knowing that another school is getting fitted for rings does nothing to minimize the moment and the memory.
This season has been filled with challenges, none of our own making. After sitting without games for periods of ten days and six days, we were presented our revised schedule for the end of the season. Four games in eight days. Multiple one-day turnarounds. Five of our last six games on the road. A final stretch of three games, all away from State Farm Center and all against Top 25 opponents. To add injury to insult, we then watched our best player – the best player in the country, mind you – suffer a broken nose and concussion that sidelined him for three games.
As a general matter, I favor diplomacy. I prefer discrete, private conversations held with appropriate parties behind the scenes, and I have not hesitated to engage on these and other issues. As these situations mounted, those conversations intensified. But everybody has a breaking point. Mine was yesterday.
In November, the conference agreed that winning percentage would be used to determine the regular-season champion in basketball. At the time, we stared into an uncertain future, not knowing how many games teams would be able to play. The winning percentage metric was meant to “level the playing field” for those teams that might suffer more significant disruption than others. For Michigan, which played three fewer games than its allotted 20, it accomplished that purpose. What we did not anticipate, and what we now realize, is that this same metric would actually penalize a team – in this case, Illinois – that was fortunate enough to play its entire schedule of 20 games. With the benefit of now seeing the entire season, winning percentage was an overly simplistic, misplaced choice, and it deserved to be changed.
As a result, for the first time in my memory (and, truly, maybe for the first time ever), the team that has won the most games – in this case, two more games – is not recognized with even a share of the conference championship. This defies logic. It stands counter to the very foundations of competition and sport. For a marquee conference that just concluded arguably the greatest, most competitive season in the history of college basketball, this is an unfortunate and disappointing outcome.
This entire situation was avoidable. By mid-February, my DIA colleagues and I saw this possibility on the horizon. I first raised the concern with the Big Ten weeks ago. As a conference, we talk about being values-based in our decision-making. We talk about prioritizing our student-athletes. We talk about doing the right thing. I have seen my colleagues do it time and again. Yet in this instance, we failed to act. We became so focused on process and timing that we lost sight of the bigger picture. Illinois is left to pick up the pieces.
This is a decision that will resonate with our program for generations. As part of my argument, I focused on the rarity that is the chance to compete and win a Big Ten title in men’s basketball. Schools go decades without that distinction. Some of our peers have never won a Big Ten championship. A conference title provides a career-defining moment for coaches and a lifetime memory for our players. This is something that our fans, alumni, and supporters would celebrate now and years into the future. All that is to say: this decision matters. History matters in college athletics, and this is an outcome that will forever live in infamy amongst the Illini family.
To the team, I offer my sincerest apology. You deserve better. Regrettably, we have only one recourse at this juncture. Win. And keep winning. Use every game as an opportunity to add another exclamation point to what has already been one of the most memorable seasons in Illinois Basketball history. Every time on the court is an opportunity to augment your legacy. To steal a line from my good friend and proud Illini Ryan Baker: we are chasing bigger rings for bigger things.
As Coach Underwood says, keep chopping wood. Every time we are slighted, every time we are disrespected, use each instance as an excuse to sharpen your axe. And when we accomplish our goals, we’ll use that razor-sharp axe to cut down the nets. Regardless of what the rest of this season holds, once we return from Indianapolis, we will celebrate you. You have earned a place in the rafters of State Farm Center.
Director of Athletics