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We're in

Railers and Illini basking in the euphoria

By Jeff Mayfield          Send a link to a friend

[March 12, 2007]  I had prepared myself to pack up the hoops gear and was getting ready to unpack the baseball equipment. I had done that only to prepare myself emotionally for a potentially negative turn of our fortunes. The Railer coaching staff had warned anyone who would listen that beating Bloomington would be a tall task. On the other hand the Illini looked like they had been dealt the death blow. ESPN's resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, had Illinois OUT of his final bracket after including them in his several preceding brackets. Lunardi isn't just one of the braketologists, he is the inventor of the system and had missed only one team in his predictions in each of the last six seasons. In a field of 65 teams, that's a remarkable record. Needless to say, I was not very hopeful when I tuned in to the selection show.

The Railers found a way and upended the Purple Raiders 50-49 Friday night in Ottawa and advance to tackle yet another tough opponent in Peoria Richwoods on Tuesday night at Redbird Arena. While another trip to the Elite Eight in Peoria is certainly the goal, whatever happens in Normal, you can only take your hat off to this group of Railers. They are only a couple of baskets removed from a perfect season. Do you know how hard that is to accomplish? When beating you would make any and every team's season? This team has navigated its way to the Sweet Sixteen.

The only thing I know about Richwoods is that their team includes Illinois recruit Bill Cole, and by all accounts, this kid is the real deal. However, if you would have told any of us that we could play Richwoods (or any team for that matter) at the supersectional for the rights to go to the state tournament, it would have been accepted in a heartbeat. I know that the Railers will be prepared, and it will come down to execution. If they can follow the game plan and get some breaks along the way, they will advance. Here's hoping that they do so. GO, RAILERS!

As for the Illini, I was just kinda depressed as the first bracket was unveiled. I know the players brought some bad stuff on themselves this season, but I guess I'm a guy that's more about grace and mercy than I am about stiff penalties and making strong statements. I guess I just remember being 19 once, and I seem to recall making a few mistakes then. I'm sure glad there wasn't a reality show making a film of my every move back then. I'm not saying that every indiscretion should be met with leniency either. However, at Illinois, Bruce Weber's philosophy is one that doesn't just talk about being a family, it acts as one. He is a principled man. He is a leader with tremendous character.

That is why I was so sad for him this year as the haters made his life miserable. On top of all the off-the-court incidents, the team faced a myriad of injuries. That not only affected who was available to play in games, but also who would participate in practice. Many times the Illini did not have a full complement of players, and it showed in their performance. Still the haters hated. You could feel the heavy yoke and burden that Weber, the coaches, his family and the players were saddled with. For most of the season, you could cut the atmosphere with a chain saw.

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But somehow the Illini prevailed. As I was struggling to reflect on this lost season, an amazing thing flashed across my TV screen. It showed that Illinois was in the Big Dance, pitted against Virginia Tech. I couldn't believe my eyes. In fact, I didn't believe my eyes. I pinched myself to make sure that I was awake. The longer I watched, the more excited I became. We're in the NCAA tournament again.

Now there are several people in Lincoln and Logan County who are a lot smarter than I am when it comes to college basketball... and maybe they should be the LDN's sports guy. They could no doubt tell you that Illinois didn't even deserve to be invited. That their record isn't deserving of having their dance card stamped. That their off-the-court troubles should preclude them from participating.

There are others who could tell you how the Illini got jobbed in this whole shooting match. That Illinois was just as good if not better than No.7-seeded Indiana or No. 9-seeded Purdue or Michigan State.

They could tell you how the selection committee likes to toy with teams like Illinois and set up potential matchups that are fraught with intrigue, mystery and irony. Like a possible second-round game with Weber's former school, the SIU Salukis, or a third-round game with our old friend Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks. Though I would warn anybody that if you look ahead to your next matchup, there probably won't be one, because you didn't focus on the game you needed to win... the one at hand.

Others could tell you that Illinois bumped out other more deserving teams. They could point to all the great wins they had and that comparably, in their minds, those teams are better than Illinois. That Illinois didn't deserve to squeak into the tournament and won't be around for long.

I'm not smart enough to make a case for any of those positions. All I can say is that going into the thing I had absolutely NO confidence in the committee at all... none, zilch, zippo. And the sweetest thing I do know, the only thing I do know is... WE'RE IN! Does anything else really matter?

[Jeff Mayfield]

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