By Larry Smith/IlliniGuys.com
It was the longest postgame walk of my professional life.
Please understand – to have to hustle after a championship event to get and turn a story or to get set up for your live shot on time as a network sports correspondent is pretty commonplace. I’ve had to do a brisk jog from the 18th green to the 1st fairway at Augusta National in the Sunday evening gloam to do a breaking news live shot. I once did a full sprint in a suit and tie down the stairs of the Richmond, Virginia, courthouse to the waiting camera down the street to report that Michael Vick had been sentenced to prison, the hustle allowing us at CNN to beat the Associated Press’ breaking news reporting by two minutes.
But the night of April 4, 2005 was different. Illinois’ rock-star, fairytale season had just come to a crashing conclusion…kicked away under the boots of the Tar Heels from North Carolina. I had remained as impartial as one could being that close to a program I’d rooted for since grade school. And now, the long walk from the media interview room to the locker rooms. The temporary stands at the dome in St. Louis ran only half the length of a football field, but as I sighed and marched forward it seemed as though I was walking to Soulard.
To understand the magnitude of the moment, you have to go back 13 months to the previous NCAA tournament. The Illinois program had weathered the tumult of a coaching change from the wildly popular Bill Self to the stoic Bruce Weber in time to reel off ten straight wins to close the regular season and win the Big Ten title. The team later made program history as the 5th seed routing 4-seed Cincinnati 92-68; the first – and only – time an Illini team has beaten a higher seed in NCAA play.
Expectations were sky high the following season. The preseason #6 ranking was soon #1 after the famous 91-73 rout of top ranked Wake Forest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The date was December 1st and Illinois would sit atop the rankings for the rest of the season. Undefeated until the final second of the regular season and their celebrity growing with each victory.
During the Michael Jordan era in the 90’s, the Bulls were always the lead story on CNN’s Sports Tonight and probably on ESPN’s SportsCenter too. They were must-see TV. Well…so were the 2005 Illini. They were the lead story every time they played…all over the country. We even reported on their practices. Remember…this isn’t Champaign or Decatur – this is CNN Headline News! The Illini were rock stars personified! Dee Brown popping jerseys on the cover of every national magazine (the internet wasn’t that big back then and smartphones didn’t exist yet). It may seem ridiculous, but when Weber’s mother was rushed to the hospital during Illinois’ Big Ten quarterfinal win over Northwestern, it was the lead story of our national newscast. And when she passed away that night, we did a breaking news announcement. Think of it – breaking into a newscast to report that a coach’s mother had died. That’s how big the Illini were on the national landscape.
In some ways, I’ve wondered if four months of being on top somehow hurt them in the clutch. The ’05 Illini team was incredible. Their patience on offense to get just the right shot was remarkable. One night, SportsCenter broke down one halfcourt sequence and counted 15 passes before the Illini took and made a shot; each pass a cause and effect to break down the defense.
But in looking at what that team did through the season and what this year’s squad has done, I came across this very interesting factoid:
After Illinois beat Wake Forest on 12/1, they didn’t face another team ranked in the AP Top 10 until the Arizona game in the Elite Eight.
Take nothing away from their greatness, but the Big Ten was down that year while Illinois was far and above superior to the other members in the league. By the time the NCAA tournament rolled around, that team was fat and happy on attention and popularity. Did it cost them their edge? We’ll never know for sure.
Fast-forward to 2021 and the contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Until a couple of weeks ago, Illinois was the Rodney Dangerfield of college basketball…”no respect at all, I tell ya!” I wrote in this space last month how Ayo Dosunmu joined Magic Johnson as the only Big Ten players ever with multiple triple-doubles and it was completely ignored by the national media. Days later, Dosunmu takes an elbow to the face and suffers a broken nose – on a play in which neither he nor the Michigan State defender had the ball – and no foul was called. It wasn’t until the All-American and Player of the Year candidate was prone with Illinois coaches and trainers hovered around him that the officials decided to kill time by looking at the replay…and lo and behold! A Flagrant 2 foul! So much for star players getting the benefit of the whistle.
But that disrespect helped to set up this team’s Wake Forest moment. That night, that game that made the rest of the country say “ohh!” It was the Michigan game on March 2nd and we all know what happened. Even the most devout and dedicated Illini fans chalked this up to a loss without Ayo in the lineup. But the Illini instead delivered a rout of historic proportions against a Wolverines team some were beginning to call the best in the nation.
It finally opened the floodgates and put Illinois on par with the other top teams in the country in the eyes of fans and the media. But they still haven’t had their moment. They are still chasing respect at this late point in the season. And that should frighten the rest of college basketball and the NCAA tournament.
They beat a school record six AP Top 10 teams this season. Four of those wins came in the last two weeks and none of them in their home arena. They have as many Quad 1 wins (12) as the 2nd seeded Alabama Crimson Tide has Quad 1 games played. And yet 90% of the experts don’t see them winning a national title. Fuel added to the fire.
Let’s be fair. In 2005, Illinois had been on the national stage for years. A consistently ranked top 25 team who had advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in three of the prior four years. This Illinois program today hasn’t even been to the NCAA in eight years. There is a larger respect issue toward the program that rubs off on this team.
But it all adds to the giant chip on their shoulder. The winningest team in the Big Ten, but NOT the Big Ten champion. The lack of respect and missing acknowledgement for what they have done. The scheduling issues in the Big Ten. It’s all there and it all leads to this: Illinois believes it still has something to prove.
If the 2005 Illini arrived at the NCAA tournament in a Rolls Royce, the 2021 team is showing up packed into a used Yugo. And they’re ready to trade up. That’s very bad news for the other 67 teams. This isn't 2005. This edition of the Illini may end up proving that they aren't like any team anywhere ever before.
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