2004: The Year of the Illini. 2005...?
Illinois closed out 2004 with a New Year's Eve victory
over the Cincinnati Bearcats to win the Las Vegas Holidy Classic.
Along with this year's portion of last season, the Illini went 33-5 in 2004, won the Big Ten regular season title outright for the first time in 50 years, made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2004 NCAA Tournament and ended the year ranked #1 in the nation.
This year, the Illini have been nothing short of dominant. Their fourteen wins include three over ranked teams (Wake Forest, Gonzaga and Cincinnati). With the exception of their annual game with Missouri, which they won by six, every game has been won by double digits. The Illini have only trailed for 21.5 minutes the entire season
. They end the year ranked #1 in the AP, Coaches and CBS Sportsline polls, #1 in the Sagarin Ratings and #7 in the RPI.
With a year like that, Illini fans can be forgiven for expecting even more out of this year's team. Like anyone, I hate to look ahead, but with this team, it's hard not to, especially considering the location of this year's post-season play. From Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun Times (here
A big part of the enormous expectations involves a postseason itinerary that awaits if the Illini claim the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. Imagine a Big Ten tournament appearance at the United Center (138 miles from Champaign) followed by two NCAA games in Indianapolis (125 miles), the NCAA regional at Allstate Arena (152 miles) and a Final Four in St. Louis (182 miles). The Illini -- and, more importantly, their fans -- won't have to board a plane. No team ever will have had a cushier logistical path to glory
The Illini are aware of that, but are trying not to talk about it. The Chicago Tribune has a good story
about Weber looking ahead to the rest of the season. Amazingly, he's having to deflate
expectations by predicting that the Illini will lose in conference play. Weber said:
I mean, last year we got our butts thrashed by Northwestern. Anyone in the Big Ten, when you go through that grind, they can get your number
This is the one hundredth year of Illini basketball. Could it also be our first title?