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Illinois should be a top-16 program

One of the main topics of debate I’ve noticed as of late regarding Illinois basketball is where the Illini should be among other national programs.

I’m not talking about where Illinois currently is as a program. But let’s discuss where Illinois could be based on Illinois’ past successes, its recruiting base and the state of other programs around the country.

Illinois should be a top-16 program.

Illinois has been one of the most consistent programs in the country since 1980. From the 1980-1981 season to last season, Illinois won 691 games, made 24 NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Sweet 16 or better eight times.

By comparison, Kentucky won 795 games, made 26 NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Sweet 16 or better 16 times. UCLA won 677 games, made 23 NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Sweet 16 or better 11 times. Indiana won 645 games, made 24 NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Sweet 16 or better 10 times.

Illinois hasn’t competed for the national championship as much as the likes of Duke and North Carolina in the last 25-plus years, but it’s shown it can get there at times. Lou Henson took Illinois to a Final Four. Bill Self was undoubtedly on the verge. Bruce Weber coached Illinois to the national championship game.

As for recruiting, the state has strong enough high school talent where a team made of the right home-grown players could compete for a national title consistently. Since 1997, the state has produced 24 McDonald’s All-Americans. If Illinois can keep even half of those players home, it should be among the top teams in the country. Five of those players were Illini recruits.

The Illini have used in-state recruits to win big before. The 1989 Flyin’ Illini were led by Illinois products Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson and went to the Final Four. Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine were recruited from the state and helped Illinois to the national championship game in 2005.

Based on its past and its recruits, Illinois should be among the top 16 programs in the country.

Here are what I believe to be the top 11 programs in the country. These are the programs, in alphabetical order, which have proven consistently they can recruit NBA-level players and compete for national championships.

Connecticut: Jim Calhoun has won three national championships and continues to get some of the country’s top recruits.

Duke: The Blue Devils will always be one of the country’s top few programs as long as Mike Krzyzewski is in charge. Duke has won four national championships and been to 11 Final Fours under Coach K.

Florida: The Gators had a couple of disappointing seasons after their back-to-back national championships, but Billy Donovan has his team moving back toward the top again. Coming off last year’s Elite 8 appearance, the Gators are again ranked in the top 15 this season.

Kansas: The Jayhawks have flourished under a number of coaches, and Bill Self has continued that legacy. He’s often in the mix for the country’s top players and has won one national championship. You have to wonder if Illinois would be where Kansas is now if Self had stayed.

Kentucky: Kentucky is one of the programs which has rarely seen down a year. John Calipari will make any program a top-10 one as well, but he’s even more powerful at Kentucky. The Wildcats will have some of the country’s top players and compete for national championships as long as he’s there.

Louisville: This is a program Illinois should be right in line with. Rick Pitino has had a few up-and-down years at Louisville, but he’s also taken it to a Final Foul and two Elite Eights.

Michigan State: Tom Izzo has made the Spartans a constant national contender because he’s locked down Michigan’s top players. From Mateen Cleaves to Jason Richardson to Charlie Bell to current players Draymond Green and Keith Appling, they’re all from Michigan. He has also gotten players such as Shannon Brown from Illinois and Zach Randolph from Indiana, but Michigan is where he fares best. Illinois could have similar success if it kept players in state.

North Carolina: Outside of a few short stretches, the Tar Heels have been one of the nation’s premier programs going back to the 1940s. Roy Williams has continued that tradition and has North Carolina recruiting players and winning games with the best of them.

Ohio State: Thad Matta has quickly developed Ohio State into one of the country’s premier programs. In his first seven years with the Buckeyes, he’s won four Big Ten championships, lost in the national championship game, went to three Sweet 16’s and has landed big-time recruits like Greg Oden, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger. He’s succeeded by recruiting well in Ohio and throughout the Midwest.

Syracuse: Jim Boeheim is another coach who has built a dynasty, and Syracuse isn’t going anywhere unless he goes. The Orange have been to three Final Fours and won one national championship under Boeheim. His teams usually include players predominately from the East Coast.

Texas: The Longhorns haven’t lived up to expectations in the NCAA tournament recently, but you still can’t ignore their many successes under Rick Barnes. Texas has been to the Sweet 16 or better five times and has never won less than 19 games under Barnes.

These five programs have the potential to be in that group based on its past successes and recruiting bases:

Arizona: The Wildcats saw a couple of rough years after Lute Olson, but Sean Miller has brought some stability back to the program. He showed Arizona’s potential last year by taking it back to the Elite 8.

Georgetown: John Thompson III coached the the Hoyas to the Sweet 16 and Final Four is his first two seasons, but has been up and down since. Georgetown has been to the NCAA tournament in five of his six seasons there and is third in the Big East right now.

Illinois: See above.

Indiana: The Hoosiers are a sleeping giant because of their tradition and recruiting base. Tom Crean is starting to turn it around at Indiana, and it could soon again be one of the top programs in the country.

UCLA: The Bruins have as much as tradition and upside as any program, but they’ve dipped at times like Illinois over the last 10 years. Their potential is probably higher than Illinois’, but they’re another program waiting to soar.