The 2007-2008 Illinois basketball season was forgettable. It was the first time in nine years the Illini failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, with a losing record to add insult to injury. However, the 2008-2009 contingent surprised most everyone by winning 24 games.
Assistant coach Wayne McClain played an important role in the turnaround. He feels last season is a stepping stone to even better results down the road.
"It is. It's a good start. I thought this last season was a good start to a very negative season prior to that. Losing Jamar (Smith), who clearly was our best player, no one thought we would do as well as we did. But the guys were unbelieveably great. They worked hard and got better and gave us a chance.
"Now, you have a little momentum. With the addition of a couple players, people should feel good about Illinois basketball. They should feel like we should be successful.
"Probably the worst campaign I've had was a couple years ago. I've never been a part of losing like that. It was tumultuous. We were able to turn it around. We're still not satisfied. We've got to build on it and get back to the Tournament and get to the point where we get Illinois basketball back to the championship game."
Besides returning top players like Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale, the Illini have also signed four talented newcomers who will add depth and competition to the mix this fall. D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey have impressive credentials.
"If nothing else, it gives us a little bit more competitive edge. It gets guys to work harder because you have hungry kids who have the potential to play right away. It should send a message to everybody else, 'If you aren't ready to play, we're gonna find somebody else.'
"Obviously, our eyes are wide open, and we're looking forward to a new season. And seemingly we're gonna have some other good players following after that. So it should be nice for awhile."
Indeed, the Illini coaching staff has upgraded its recruiting in recent times. They expect to sign three more outstanding prospects this November. And they have a good start on the following year as well. But as McClain knows all too well, recruiting success is often cyclic and unpredictable.
"Recruiting is an interesting phenomenon. One minute it's up, the next minute it's down. You try to keep it balanced. You go after the players you think are the best suited for your situation, the best suited for what you've got coming back.
"Sometimes a guy might be more athletic, but you may not need that position. Or you see a big, but you can't use a big. So you've got to go with what best fits your program. Sometimes you get a good player, and sometimes you miss out on one or two.
"You're gonna have three or four, so you have to have a priority list. If you miss number one, you go after number two. Sometimes you get what you feel is the best. We watch these guys tremendously and study them. We try to get the best guys that are gonna fit our situation on and off the court.
"Some you think you've got. You work real hard, there's no science to this. You think that you're in with a kid, things look good, you think you've got them, and then for some unforseeable reason you wake up the next morning and they're gone.
"I wish we could say it's definitive, but it's not. Think about how late we got Chester (Frazier) that year. A lot of people weren't even looking at him, and he ended up one of the best players and leaders we've had in awhile.
"Who knows? If we had won a couple more games and been in a position to tie (for the championship), Chester could have been the MVP of the Big 10 this year. And that's a kid no one's looking at. There's no rhyme or reason to it sometimes.
"Sometimes you think you have a stranglehold and you don't get them. And then sometimes, you look at a situation like Deron Williams. One of the best guards ever, but he wasn't a guy who was highly recruited. He falls in our lap. There's no science to this thing."
McClain is best known for recruiting the Peoria area, his home town. Richardson is from there, and McClain also helped greatly on other Peoria standouts prior to him. But he does not limit himself to Peoria.
"I don't just recruit Peoria. All of us recruit all over. I'm able to go back into Peoria because of my roots there, but I feel very comfortable with the coaches from Chicago. One of the things I feel good about is I've established relationships with them through my old high school associations. Those guys have given us every opportunity to recruit in that area because of that. I feel really good about that.
"Recruiting is a thing you have to do all over. I think certain people feel more comfortable in certain areas. To be a successful recruiter, you need to be able to go anywhere and be able to do it."
Some have wondered whether Chicago coaches might have a resentment or jealousy toward McClain since he won four straight state championships at Peoria Manual. Or perhaps there is a competition between the cities of Chicago and Peoria that might limit McClain's potential to recruit Chicago. But he minimizes that possibility.
"I'm sure you always get some who won't welcome you because they feel they should be in your seat. But I can honestly say we've had a great relationship with the Chicago coaches and the Chicago Public League.
"Every year, I personally organize the Moody camp just to make sure we keep a good rapport with the coaches up there. They've been outstanding. We've been able to go into schools, and they've been receptive. I think our being persistent has helped us turn some of this recruiting around in the Chicago area. Of course, you can't please them all."
Cheating is always a possibility in major college basketball recruiting. Some players have their hands out, some high school and AAU coaches are looking to profit from their players, shoe and other apparel companies have a financial stake in results, and some schools take short cuts to produce a winner.
Some schools hire high school and AAU coaches to gain access to their players. And some provide jobs and other opportunities for parents of players so they can remain close to their offspring. Illinois is not one of those schools, and McClain is proud of that fact.
"I think it's all what you're looking for. We (Peoria Manual) dominated Illinois basketball, and I never entertained jobs or money based on players. It just depends on what you want. Some people are in the market for that (extra inducements), there's no doubt about that.
"I think that, at the end of the day, if you offer a good product that the University of Illinois is, you're gonna get kids that want to come and be a part of that. You're gonna feel comfortable about it because you're never gonna wake up in the morning and have an article suggesting that you cheated or gave people improper inducements to come to the school.
"That to me is the most important part. We can sleep at night. We know the kids we get have done it the right way. I would hate to go through some of the PR nightmares that some schools recently are going through. You think you've done something to beat the system, and all of a sudden that ugly head rears itself. That's something we never have to worry about."