Illini Wonk
Friday, April 01, 2005
  A Magical Season for the Fighting Illini
What a season! I have been a fan of the Illinois Fighting Illini for almost 20 years and I will never forget this season or this team. As the Illini prepare to take the court in St. Louis for the Final Four, Illini Wonk finds himself taking a walk down memory lane and thinking back on this special season. Once you reach this stage of the NCAA Tournament, any remaining team could win. In a one-and-done situation, the champion will be the team that plays the best for two nights in a row.

Regardless of what this weekend holds, Illini Wonk will always have great memories of this season. Permit me a recap.

It seems like centuries ago, but the team gave us the first inkling of how good they could be with a thorough dismantling of Gonzaga, everyone's favorite mid-major. Gonzaga was ranked 24th at the time and Illinois took a 31-point halftime lead and coasted to a 17-point victory in the John Wooden Tradition at Conseco Fieldhouse. Their performance earned praise from Coach Wooden and prompted CBS Sportsline senior writer Gregg Doyel to remark no one has better guards. No one. Not even Wake Forest.

Speaking of Wake Forest, it was only a few short days later that the #1 ranked Demon Deacons made a trip to Champaign. I remember watching this in the basement of my brother's house where we were all bouncing off the walls. I think I had made about 15 phone calls to friends and family by halftime as Illinois dominated Wake and took a 21 point lead into the second half. In the second 20 minutes they pushed the lead to 32 before letting off the gas for a 91-73 victory.

After finishing off Arkansas 72-60 on the road, Illinois catapulted four spots to #1 in the Associated Press Poll. Much was made at the time of the fact that the Illini had only been ranked at the top twice in their prior 100 year history and lost their next game both time. Little did we know at the time, that the Illini would hold that spot in the polls for the rest of the season.

Over the next two weeks, Illinois posted victories over Chicago State, Georgetown, Oregon and Valpo. It was the day following the win over Valparaiso, that Illini Wonk made his first mark in the blogosphere with this post. It started as a blogger with a dream, a dream to be THE place on the Internet for fans of Illinois basketball to find all the news of their team. I started the blog knowing that we were in the midst of a special season, but having no idea just how special it would become.

Two days later, the Illini won their annual Braggin' Rights border war with Missouri. They then entered the Las Vegas Holiday Classic where they posted easy victories over Longwood and Northwestern State to set up a championship game against the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats. Illinois sent another message in their last non-conference game, blowing them out by 22 points. The Illini entered conference play with their best record since, well, since the last time they went to the Final Four. By starting 15-0, Illinois also closed out calendar year 2004 with a 33-5 record.

The Illini started conference play as the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Big Ten champions and victories over Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern got the started on the right path. Then the Illini entered their toughest stretch of conference play with games against Iowa and at Wisconsin followed by their Centennial celebration at home against Minnesota and a road trip to face Michigan State. They would win them all and send expectations through the roof.

The first was a tough overtime win against Iowa that wasn't supposed to be that tough. The next would become the seventh most watch broadcast in ESPN history, a game that Illini Wonk dubbed the Struggle of the Streaks, Illinois, winners of 19 straight games, vs. Wisconsin, winners of 38 straight games at home.

Illini Wonk live-blogged the game, which turned out to be one of many memorable performances by this year's Illini. Midway through the second half, the Illini were facing an eight point deficit and a crazed crowd. Clutch shooting from Jack Ingram and great guard play rallied the Illini to a 75-65 victory. Down the comeback stretch, Illini Wonk just about put holes through his basement roof due to the jumping and the fist-pumping, GLAVIN!

This is the 100 year anniversary of Illinois basketball and Illinois officially celebrated their centennial on January 29. Hundreds of former players came to Assembly Hall to watch a 89-66 victory over the Minnesota Gophers. Talk about a way to celebrate! How about this entire season? If only centennials came around more often! The win led to a unanimous #1 ranking that would last for several weeks.

Far from letting down, Illinois followed up with a practically flawless performance in a 81-68 win at Michigan State. It was to be their only meeting of the season (thus far) so it was a "must-win" for the Illini and after the win, everyone was jumping on the Illinois bandwagon. It also led to the first of two major articles on the Illini in Sports Illustrated.

The Illini then went on to post victories over Indiana at home, Michigan on the road, and Wisconsin for the second of three times this season. They then went on the road to defeat Penn State and Iowa before returning to Champaign for blowout wins over Northwestern and Purdue. All that stood between the Illini and the first undefeated Big Ten regular season in almost 30 years was a win at Ohio State. I don't have to tell you what happened. On the positive side, Illini Wonk received a condolences phone call from a friend who loves Michigan and said "at least now you can hate Ohio State as much as I do." Indeed. Despite the loss, the Illini retained their #1 ranking.

Illinois had to regroup in order to win the Big Ten Tournament, which they did with wins over Northwestern in the quarterfinal, Minnesota in the semifinal and Wisconsin in the final. Despite winning the tournament, Illinois' offense lagged behind their usual performance, especially at the guard spots. James Augustine picked up some of the slack and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

But the bigger news to come during the tournament was the death of Coach Bruce Weber's mother, who passed away after their quarterfinal win over Northwestern. Weber elected to continue coaching and the tears he shed during a moment of silence before the Minnesota game were one of the most touching moments of the season. They wouldn't be his last tears.

Illinois entered the NCAA men's basketball tournament as the overall #1 seed and had the geographical path they had been playing for all year. Their first two games would be played in Indianapolis, their next two in Chicago and the Final Four would be held in St. Louis. All destinations were less than three hours by bus from Champaign and would be virtual "home-courts" for the Illini.

Illinois won their first-round game over FDU and their second round over Nevada to set up a Sweet 16 game in Chicago vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee and their hated coach Bruce Pearl. The Illini dispatched WMU to set up a rematch of their 2001 regional final loss to Arizona. The game was said by 98 percent of the 285 voters in a poll on this site to be the best win in Illinois' 100 year history.

And what a game it was. With four minutes left in the game, I was despondent, as Illinois was facing a 15-point deficit. The Illini had no answer for Channing Frye and Hassan Adams and the scoreboard reflected that all too painfully. Then, the incredible happened. They staged one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA Tournament history and sent the game into overtime where they won by one point. Now, with Illinois in the NCAA Final Four for the first time since 1989, excitement is at it's peak.

It seems hard to believe that this weekend will be the last one in an Illinois uniform for Luther Head and Roger Powell, for Nick Smith and Jack Ingram, probably for Deron Williams and maybe even for Dee Brown. It's amazing to stop and think about what these guys have done for the program. So, before the tip-off tonight, Illini Wonk would like to thank the 2004-2005 Illinois Fighting Illini for a magical season. From the win over #1 Wake Forest to the come-from-behind magic against Arizona, this has been an unparalleled season for Illinois fans. Regardless of what happens this weekend, I just want to say thanks for the memories.

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