College Men

Illinois' numbers belie under-the-radar status

Thomas Detry of Illinois with head coach Mike Small at No. 18 on Monday of the NCAA Men's Division 1 Championship at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
Thomas Detry of Illinois with head coach Mike Small at No. 18 on Monday of the NCAA Men's Division 1 Championship at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

HUTCHINSON, Kan. – If you make it to the national-championship game in any other sport and return 80 percent of your lineup, odds are you could be the favorite to win next year. This year, Illinois has quietly gone about its business, like it normally does, and again like normal are not being mentioned as one of the favorites.

Why is this? The facts suggests otherwise.

Illinois is one of just five programs to advance through regional play each year since 2009 when regionals were expanded from three to six. Texas, Texas A&M, USC and UCLA are the others. In fact, the Illini have now played in seven consecutive NCAA Championships.

Let’s go a little deeper. Illinois has participated in match play in three of the last four years. The same number of times we have seen Alabama, Georgia Tech and UCLA in match play. No team has made it in each of the last four years.

Don’t forget Illinois has been ranked in the top 10 all season in both computer polls. Coming into this championship the Illini were No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings and No. 9 by Golfstat.

Could it be that Champaign, Ill., is not exactly a destination spot for golf? Could that be the answer? Sure, that plays a part. Not many schools where snowflakes fall on a regular basis get mentioned in the elite-status category. But, if there is ever going to be one, Illinois is a good bet.

The ball got rolling when Mike Small was named head coach. Small, now in his 14th season, has made Illinois golf known. Well known.

In a brief conversation following the final round of stroke play with SMU coach Josh Gregory, who led Augusta State to NCAA titles in 2010 and 2011, he simply said: “He is the best in our business.”

You won’t find many that disagree. Not many, if any, coaches could go into the Land of Lincoln and produce the sort of numbers Small’s teams have put up.

To mention a few, Small has guided Illinois to 38 tournament victories. Twice in the last four years, he has had the NCAA individual champion in Scott Langley (2010) and Thomas Pieters (2012). His teams had won five consecutive Big Ten Conference titles before finishing runner-up to Minnesota this year.

Pieters represents the lone player who did not return from last year’s team. Pieters elected to leave after his junior year and pursue a professional career.

“When Thomas turned pro people thought we would take a step back, and these guys are not going to accept that,” Small said of his squad.

Don’t pick them, doubt them, whatever it is, it does not seem to rattle this group of Illini golfers. Playing on this stage is becoming a norm.

“They are used to this. They understand it and they are not afraid,” Small said.

That may explain the effort today deep into a round that could have seen the season end with just one more missed putt. Illinois fought hard to wiggle into the top eight.

Junior Brian Campbell led the charge for his team to qualify for match play with a 7-under 63, a round that was only matched this week by individual champion Cameron Wilson of Stanford.

“We know we belong out here; even though we are considered underdogs, we can hang with the top teams and we enjoy the challenge of rising to the challenge and making a lasting impression,” Campbell said.

Last year was certainly a lasting impression with a mammoth win over top-ranked California to reach the championship match. The Golden Bears had won 11 of 14 events and was being mentioned as one of the top teams of all time. Illinois pulled off the upset denying a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 at the Crabapple Golf Course.

Illinois now has a .500 winning percentage in match play. Very few are better in that department.

The facts suggest Illinois should be a favorite this week. This year’s team by all measurable accounts is better than a year ago. Better than the team that knocked off the No. 1 seed and finished second to the No. 2 team. Last year’s team won its regional as a No. 6 seed. This year they were the No. 2 seed and they won.

Small says this team is better and he says the four returning players - Campbell, Thomas Detry, Charlie Danielson and Alex Burge – are all better. The numbers support that. Each player’s individual ranking is better than it was at season’s end a year ago.

With an opening-round match against the No. 1 after 54-holes of stroke play, Small’s squad will have another chance to shine with the college golf world watching.

It’s clearly time to mention Champaign as a destination spot for college golf. And maybe this week the Illinois men’s golf program can move away from a second-sentence mention when talking about the elite programs in the game.