Jalen Brunson didn't need to rub it in this time around to instill the same creeping feeling of dread and irrelevance around Champaign-Urbana that now seems like an annual rite of passage. The five-star point guard sat at a table on the campus of his north suburban Chicago high school on Wednesday and unzipped a hoodie to reveal a white Villanova t-shirt. Illini basketball had come in second once again for the type of program-changing recruit the program needs so desperately.
To their credit, Illinois basketball fans didn't seem to direct much anger or hostility at Brunson for his decision. You can't kill what's already dead, and the spirit of Illini fans was broken a long time ago.
Brunson is simply the latest in a long-line talented of local prospects to deem Illinois their second choice. It's become the thing that defines the program more than anything else since Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head fueled a trip to the national championship game back in 2005.
The roots of Illinois basketball's issues go back to the months following what was only Illinois' second loss of the season against a loaded North Carolina team in the title game. That's when five-star Chicago point guard Sherron Collins chose Kansas over the Illini and when Indianapolis shooting guard Eric Gordon gave a verbal commitment to Bruce Weber.
There was a brief period of hope around this time that such a special season could lead to a rejuvenated program; a notion among nationally-touted local players that going to Illinois was every bit as legitimate as heading to one of the blue-bloods. Gordon played for the same AAU team as Chicago point guard Derrick Rose, and word was he was trying to convince him to come to Champaign. Rose visited Illinois, but the false hope of a packaged deal crashed and burned quickly once Indiana axed Mike Davis and hired Kelvin Sampson.
Gordon never re-opened his commitment, but he did change his mind. He went with the hometown Hoosiers, a school just 45 minutes away from where he grew up, after Sampson hired a family friend as an assistant. Sampson was already facing scrutiny from the NCAA for impermissible phone calls at the time, and the perception of a dirty recruitment only made things worse for Illinois. Gordon's deflection to the Hoosiers has been called one college basketball's most painful decommitments ever, and the string of recruiting misses that followed it have only added salt to the wound.
For as much as Gordon's turn to a conference rival hurt, it'll be hard to ever top what Cliff Alexander did to Illinois. Alexander, ranked No. 2 overall in ESPN's class of 2014, spent months in the runup to his decision playing up the chances of every school among his finalists on Twitter. When he reached for and picked up the Illinois hat on the table, the Illini finally thought they had reeled in the sort of big fish that had been consistently getting away.
It was a fakeout that Alexander's friends had put him up to, the sort of thing that only a teenager would do to get laughs without realizing the ramifications of the gesture. Alexander put down that Illini cap and put it on a Kansas one, sending Champaign from euphoria to disbelief in two short seconds.