CHAMPAIGN - No offense to Lovie Smith or to the man who hired him, Josh Whitman.
But Mike Small is still the best thing going for Illinois athletics.
Illini golf this weekend brought home its seventh Big Ten championship trophy in eight years. Following Sunday's dominating performance, Small's program looks more capable than ever to bring home the one trophy that has eluded it during its rise to prominence: a national title.
The Illini entered Sunday eight strokes back of Iowa, not an insurmountable lead in team golf but a decent deficit nonetheless. The Hawkeyes played well on Sunday, three-under to finish 13-under for the tournament. But few teams, if any, in the country could keep up with the Illini's pace.
The Illini were so good No. 1 through No. 5 on Sunday, that one of the team's 4-under 68s, shot by sophomore Dylan Meyer and freshman Edoardo Lipparelli, didn't count because only the team's top-four scores count toward the team score.
On the front nine, Illinois had turned gained 10 strokes on Iowa to take the lead. By the end of the day, Illinois beat Iowa by 13 strokes following a 24-under team score Sunday to finish 26-under for the tournament.
"I knew they had it in them," Small said. "We've done it a few times this year in the last round. You can tell today they were fired up and ready to go."
Illinois has what it takes to win a national title: star power, experience and depth. The best part? The star depends on the day because of said depth.
Senior Charlie Danielson is the team's best golfer with a stroke average under 71. He's just the latest Illini to develop into a a top-10 golfer -- he's No. 6 in the NCAA individual rankings -- following in the footsteps of All-Americans Brian Campbell (2015), Thomas Pieters (2013), Luke Guthrie (2011-12) and Scott Langley (2009-10). Danielson has won two tournaments and only finished outside the top-seven in one tournament, a 19th-place finish at the Southern Highlands Collegiate in March.
But classmate Thomas Detry (10-under) -- like Pieters, a native Belgian -- edged out Danielson (9-under) by a stroke for the individual Big Ten medal. It was Detry's first individual win of the year, though he's finished top-five in five of his nine other tournaments this season.
The seniors are complemented by two high-ceiling sophomores who were two of Small's highest-ranked prep recruits (two more top-70 recruits are on the way next season with California's Bryan Baumgarten and Arizona's Michael Feagles.
Meyer (2-under, T9) is the third most consistent with a stroke average (72.37) just behind Detry (72.19). The sophomore has finished outside the top-25 just twice in ten tournaments -- including a second-, third-, sixth- and ninth-place finish -- and is tied with Danielson for the team lead in rounds under par (11).
Classmate Nick Hardy is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and has the stuff to win tournaments. He was co-medalist at the Big Ten Championships last year and has five top-10 finishes this season. But he also finished 66th and 69th at two March tournaments. He seems to have fixed any issues though after finishing second at the Boilermaker Invitational and 20th at the Big Ten Championships.
Lipparelli (1-over, T-17th) could be the real key. The latest in a line of foreign recruits -- he won't be the last as Belgian Giovanni Tadiotto joins the team next season -- the Italian freshman has given the Illini a dangerous fifth option. That's important because it gives the Illini a margin for error. If one of the top four has a bad day during tournament play, Lipparelli is capable of giving a solid, if not, good score to minimize the damage. In seven tournaments, Lipparelli has four top-25 finishes. He will be tested, especially if Illinois advances to match play, where all five golfers square off against a golfer from another team.
Small and Illinois don't need a national title to prove their worth on a national stage. They've already proven they belong among the nation's best programs. They're no longer the cute northern program. They're a legit annual threat and equal to Stanford, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Texas and the other national powers. The Illini have not only made eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances, they've advanced to NCAA Championship Match Play (top-eight) four times in the last five years, which included a 2013 runner-up finish.
Next month isn't "now or never" time for Small's program. Based on the young talent -- Meyer and Hardy are on a path to become top-20 collegiate golfers -- and incoming talent, Small likely will have other chances to win a national title.
But to this point, his chances never seemed greater.
He has two last-chance seniors capable of competing for an individual national championship. Both have felt what it's like to come so close to winning a national title, falling, falling to Alabama in 2013 as freshmen. Small has two sophomores with the talent to win a tournament and head-to-head rounds against some of the best in the country. Small has a freshman who has given the team a higher floor for their fifth golfer.
Small's team showed Sunday that it not only has the look of a Big Ten champion but possibly a national champion. That quest starts next month at the NCAA Regionals and, barring a collapse there, will play out at the NCAA Championships in late May in Eugene, Ore.
"I hope it carries out well," Small said. "We have another chance. We've been at the top of golf most of the year but we have to learn from this.
"f we bring it like this, it bodes well."null