Celebrating and acknowledging fans at the season-ending basketball game in 2005. Credit: AP/Seth Perlman

Do you realize the University of Illinois might be this close to a national basketball championship?

The University of North Carolina copped another NCAA title Monday night, but the Illini could be next to win one. That’s not because the U. of I. just hired a new coach who promises exciting times ahead—though it did. And it’s not because the U. of I. just nailed down a commitment from the nation’s most coveted one-and-done recruit. The University of Missouri did that—by the simple expedient of hiring the recruit’s dad as an assistant coach.

No, it’s not because of anything Illinois’s done lately. It’s because of what North Carolina allegedly was getting away with for years.

A traditional powerhouse, UNC has parleyed talented players and ethical rot into one top team after another. New York Times sports columnist Michael Powell welcomed the Tar Heels into this year’s Final Four with a piece last Saturday headlined “Stain Permeates Basketball Blue Blood.”

“Amid the blue-and-white pompoms,” wrote Powell, “few are so rude as to mention that [UNC] remains enmeshed in a scandal of spectacular proportions. Put simply, for two decades until 2013, the university provided fake classes for many hundreds of student athletes, most of them basketball and football players.”

Powell cites a 2015 book on the situation, Cheated, written by UNC history professor Jay Smith, who told him, “The university is operating like a crime factory.” Smith’s coauthor was Mary Willingham, an athletic department tutor who blew the whistle.

Roy Williams has been the Tar Heels basketball coach since 2003. Powell reports that Williams makes $2 million a year and just got another $500,000 for reaching the Final Four.

Are there basketball coaches who are like giant banks or corporations—too big to fail, or even be reprimanded? Maybe so. Powell tells us the NCAA investigation into UNC athletics has been “bending and twisting—some might say stalling—during the past few years.”

However—and here is why loyal Illini alums should get excited—”NCAA gumshoes have recently awakened from their slumber and, in December, filed a tough set of accusations against [UNC].”

Imagine if UNC is stripped of all championships tainted by corruption! If that’s the fate of Williams’s 2005 team, the national title it won that year would properly pass to the team it beat in the finals 75-70: the Fighting Illini of Illinois.

It might be hard to reassemble the student body 12 years later for a proper pep rally. But wherever the Illini’s faithful sons and daughters could assemble, hearts would soar. So . . .

Gooooo Gumshoes!

Update: Readers commenting below correctly point out, “That’s not how it works.” UNC could lose its 2005 title, but it wouldn’t actually go to Illinois.

This post was intended more as a whimsical “what if.” Besides, the Illini lost on the court, where it counts. They lost to Tar Heels All-American Sean May, who scored 26 points and would later tell a newspaper that he chose African studies over communications as his major because with communications, “I had to be there in the actual classroom.” And they lost to future NBA guard Rashad McCants, who scored 14 points and would later tell ESPN that he made the dean’s list that spring, even though he didn’t attend classes, and tutors wrote his term papers for him.

The actual reward for the Illini, should UNC be stripped of this championship, wouldn’t be accepting it as a hand-me-down 12 years after the fact. Its reward would be thinking cheater’s proof! and letting it go. Cheater’s proof is always delicious.