They are both east of the Mississippi River and separated by just one state. Both teams wear orange, and both are the flagship schools of their respective states. Somehow, though, Tennessee basketball and the Illinois Fighting Illini have hardly ever faced off. That now changes.
Rick Barnes and Brad Underwood have scheduled a home and home with their respective teams. UT will host Illinois in December of 2023, and the Vols will visit them in Champaign, Ill., the next year, in December of 2024.
Up to this point, Tennessee basketball and Illinois have played only three times, the most recent way back in January of 1988 at Illinois, with the Fighting Illini, ranked No. 20 at the time, winning 103-79. The schools officially announced this agreement Tuesday afternoon.
Despite Illinois winning the last matchup, UT leads the all-time series 2-1. The Vols beat No. 10 ranked Illinois 54-51 at home back in December of 1985. They beat them 66-42 at home back during the Ray Mears days in December of 1967.
This is the type of matchup the sport needs though. Illinois has been rolling as a program ever since Underwod took over in 2017. He has led them to two straight NCAA Tournaments, and it would have been three if COVID didn’t result in the cancelation of the 2020 Big Dance.
Last year, he won the Big Ten regular season championship. The year before, he won the Big Ten Tournament Championship. Both years, he led Illinois to the NCAA Tournament Round of 32, and he’s got another top 25 caliber team this year.
Simply put, Underwood has the program rolling, just as Barnes has Tennessee basketball rolling. They also have Big 12 ties, as Underwood played for the Kansas State Wildcats and coached the Oklahoma State Cowboys for one year. He was a KSU assistant from 2006 to 2012 while Barnes was head coach of the Texas Longhorns.
There is another intriguing coaching tie between these schools. Bill Self took over Illinois in 2000 after leading the Tulsa Golden Hurricane to the Elite Eight. Buzz Peterson replaced Self at Tulsa and won the NIT, which is what raised his profile to get the job at UT.
Self’s replacement at Illinois after he took over the Kansas Jayhawks, Bruce Weber, was later hired by John Currie at KSU in 2012 after Currie and Frank Martin parted ways. Ironically, Underwood was an assistant to Martin and followed him to the South Carolina Gamecocks. Of course, Currie had an infamous stint as UT athletic director in 2017.
The biggest tie, though, is what happened with Bruce Pearl. In 1988-1989, Pearl, then an assistant with the Iowa Hawkeyes, was at the center of a recruiting scandal involving Illinois and Dean Thomas. Pearl basically obtained evidence of shady recruiting by Illinois to land Thomas and turned it over to the NCAA.
That resulted in a two-year postseason ban for Illinois. It also seems to have led to Pearl being blackballed from high-profile jobs, as he spent nine years with the Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles and then four with the Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers before UT came calling in 2005.
As we all know, Pearl was ironically fired by Tennessee basketball for a recruiting violation. All of this makes for what should be an interesting matchup between these two schools. The Vols and Illinois should have been playing each other years ago, and it’s high-time this happened.