What do all of these fairy tales have
in common? Nobody knew their final outcomes until they all ended up
living happily ever after. The Illinois Fighting Illini basketball
season has been a lot like one of these tales.
Sure, we knew the basketball team would
be good this season, and we had high hopes and even grander
expectations. However, if I would have told you back in October that
the Illini would be playing on April 4 for the national championship
next to the Arch, you would have told me to put down the orange
It wasn't that we didn't think the
players were up to it or that they couldn't pull a few surprises
along the way. But to perform this season the way that they have is
even more fantastic than any fairy tale.
Don't hate me for it, but I
suspected something really special was in store for us this year way
back on Thanksgiving weekend. At the John Wooden Classic at Canseco
Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the Illini demolished a well-coached
Gonzaga club that eventually lost to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16.
I deduced (which is hilarious, as
neither ESPN nor CBS pays me to deduce ANYthing… but I digress…)
that the Illinois players had done some amazing work during the
offseason. I reasoned that every player had probably taken a
thousand shots a day because their shooting was as good as I had
ever seen it. I also conjectured that they had gotten together and
talked about always making the extra pass and playing out the season
as unselfishly as would be humanly possible.
I was so convinced that something
was up that at the press conference after the game, I called Deron
Williams and asked him to show me his and the team's hand of cards.
I was thinking that maybe I'd flush him out of the pocket as all the
really great professional writers do. I was hoping that maybe he'd
throw me a morsel about the whole fairy tale that he and the Illini
were dreaming of. I figured the other media mopes would be coming by
to congratulate me for getting him to spill the beans.
The problem was, he didn't take the
bait. And he didn't even hesitate to answer my question. His
response was so indicative of the way he and his mates would play
the rest of the season that as I reflect back on it now it was
almost like a "Twilight Zone" experience.
Williams told me and the growing
legions of reporters that he and the guys were just taking a
businesslike approach to everything. And that while Gonzaga was
good, and certainly well-coached, that this was just another game to
the Illinois players. He added that they planned to play the entire
season just one game at a time. There was no talk of dreams or
what-ifs. He wouldn't say what they had done during the offseason,
nor would he comment on the commitment the players had made to each
What he didn't know was that I have
played a few cards in my day too. While I'm washed up now, at that
particular press event I read between the lines. I told Greg Taylor
on the way home that November day that we were in store for a really
While I can daydream with the best
in the business, even my fantasies cannot compare to what has
actually transpired during the 2004-2005 Illini season. I thought
we'd contend for the Big Ten title with lots of trouble from the
Spartans, the Badgers, the Hawkeyes and even the Hoosiers. We smoked
them all! Not only did Illinois win the conference, but it was
back-to-back OUTRIGHT titles! That hadn't happened in over 50 years!
Then it was on to the league tournament.
For those of you just tuning in, I'm
not a fan of conference tournaments. You can play your way out of a
decent seed, and you risk injuries that could ruin your season.
Those are just two of the many reasons that I don't think they are a
good idea. Since I'm quite certain that neither the NCAA nor the Big
Ten will be consulting with me soon to eradicate these events that
only exist because of the HUGE amounts of money that they generate,
we were stuck going again.
Perhaps in some ways I should allow
for an exception for this year's tourney. I mean, after all,
Illinois was coming off a bitter loss at Ohio State that soiled the
perfect season and maybe they needed the BTT to get their confidence
back. I STILL think that the risks far outweigh the rewards, but the
Illini showed up anyway. Indeed, did they show up? They played
lock-down defense on Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin -- so
much so that those teams never knew what hit them. Though the
offense sputtered a little, the defense and rebounding were
championship caliber. Hence they cut down the nets!
For some teams that would be the
climax to their own fairy tale season, but not this Illinois team.
They just took off their hard hats, put their work gloves in their
tool bins and opened their lunch pails for a post-game meal.
They didn't even seem to be
concerned about all the NCAA talk that they were not assured of
getting the fortuitous Indy-Chicago-St. Louis route in their March
to the Arch. But they had already taken care of business. That's why
you play a regular season. If you get it done on the court, you
should be rewarded appropriately… and the Illini were.
[to top of second column in this article]
And while people were ecstatic that
Illinois was playing FD in the first round, I was not. My research
showed that they were a good team, had a great season and were
extremely well-coached. I also knew that our Illini guys really
don't like playing anyone other than the heavyweights. While I
wasn't thinking in terms of disaster, I wasn't all that comfortable
either. The players told me to sit down in the second half and they
took care of business.
Two scary teams loomed on the
horizon, Nevada and Texas. The Longhorns had several giants in the
post and that alarmed me. Nevada had been playing great for two or
three seasons, and I didn't want them either. As it turned out, it
didn't matter… but, no one was more relieved than me. Unfortunately,
I have a good memory and I remember some first- and second-round
exits in our past… I don't think I could've faced one this season.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch… the
team traveled to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. Fans had been
clamoring for a match with Bruce Pearl for years. I was not. While
it is so sweet now that we've beaten him and justice has prevailed,
the risks were too huge. A defeat there would've been more
devastating than the loss itself. Once again, Williams and Brown had
it all under control, even though they all downplayed the
significance of the game other than its importance to the ultimate,
the "March to the Arch."
That set the stage for Arizona. I
wanted Arizona. Coming home from the United Center, Greg made me
write down every team and every seed. As I perused our bracket, I
informed him that we had a score to settle and that I wanted
Arizona. I was an idiot. For those of you who know me, that does not
come as much of a surprise to you. I just thought that for what Lute
Olson and Bill Walton had done to the Illini in San Antonio back in
2001 that the tables ought to be turned. Be careful what you ask
for, you might get it. And Arizona we got. We almost went home, but
this time the Illini had a card in their hand that I thought was
buried in the deck. And when they played it, I was lost in the
I must confess to you loyal LDN
readers that I was completely stunned and shell-shocked by the
outcome of that game. It was the only game I have ever been to where
I was so stunned that I didn't know how to react. I don't even know
IF it is humanly possible to come back from 15 points down with four
minutes to play or to come back from eight points down with 47
seconds to play. What I'm trying to say is that I saw it, but I
could never explain it. Few things in life are ever that way. All I
know is that we won, and it couldn't have happened to a finer team.
So, here we are in St. Louis. Never
mind that it is my favorite city on the planet. Never mind that some
of my greatest childhood memories and, for that matter, some of my
greatest adult memories have come in this town. I don't think I can
fully appreciate what's happened or what is happening.
I didn't want to face Louisville. I
hate to say this, but I thought overall the committee did a good job
in seeding this year's NCAA tournament. Louisville was one of the
few exceptions where they totally missed! How does the fourth-ranked
team in the country, who should get a No. 2 seed (some argued maybe
for even a No. 1), at worst a No. 3, get a fourth seed? I have no
explanation for it except to say that they got hosed. So, they come
into the tournament with a chip on their shoulder.
Then I remembered that they are
coached by the unflappable Rick Pitino. There are few coaches that I
have more respect for. Give him a week to prepare for an opponent
and it's usually lights out for that said opponent. I wanted to play
somebody with a rookie coach. I wanted to play somebody who was just
glad to be there. Not the warriors from "The Ville." In fact, I have
liked the Cards (I love that nickname!) for years and would be
rooting for them if they were playing anyone but the Illini. I also
thought that their guards matched up well with us and that their big
men might be the difference. However, the fairy tale continued and
Illinois survived and moved on, and I was worried and wrong again.
So, now comes the national
championship game versus the vaunted North Carolina Tar Hills. This
is the most athletic team in the country. Superstars at every
position, and some coming in off the bench. Big men in the paint,
particularly Sean May, perhaps the likes that Illinois has never
seen before… in fairy tales or in regular season slugfests. I have
absolutely no idea how you stop Carolina, and I don't know if we
can. I just hope that I am wrong one more time. I want the entire
fairy tale… I want Illini Nation to live happily ever after!