It’s funny, isn’t it, how college athletic teams tend to maintain a consistent character from year to year, despite the steady turnover of players, and more often than not despite even a change of head coach. Under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s basketball team always seems capably confident. Michigan is, in all its sports, ever uppity, winning just enough championships to sustain its fans’ false pride. (The attitude of Michigan alumni toward the rest of the Big Ten seems to be “At least we’ve won a few.”) Even when Ohio State strayed from Woody Hayes’s blunderbuss three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense to welcome a series of quarterbacks who could actually throw the football, it remained, for the most part, the big, dumb brute of the Big Ten.

As an Illinois fan and alumnus, allow me to point out that this tendency for character to remain intact is funny in a disturbing rather than amusing way. The Fighting Illini are the Cubs of the Big Ten–the chokers, the head cases, the lovable losers a fan must appreciate for their faults, not for their grace under pressure. And this year has proved no different. The one good thing about the convoluted Bowl Alliance system, which ranks the football teams and shuttles the national-championship game from bowl to bowl each year, is that it spared the Illini the humiliation of being clobbered by Oregon in the Rose Bowl; instead, the Illini did a major flop in the Sugar Bowl, a loss to Louisiana State that stung less than, say, the walloping Illinois got from UCLA in Pasadena in 1984. Likewise, the basketball team began the season with high hopes, ranked second in the nation behind Duke in some polls, then staggered under the weight of injuries at midseason before coming back to claim a share of the Big Ten title. Yet the Illini lost in the Big Ten tournament, and last weekend, after reaching the NCAA men’s so-called Sweet 16, lost again.

“They are what they are,” said my buddy Boom-Boom, a sports editor of the Daily Illini across a distance of many rises and falls of the big orange basketball in the sky. As I agreed, I wondered which was more depressing: that the Illini remained the same soft underachievers they’ve always been, or that we had finally aged/matured/mellowed/weakened/ sunk into enough middle-aged despair to accept it.

When Bill Self came to Illinois a couple years ago from Tulsa, a smaller program with a tradition of exceeding expectations in the NCAA tournament, he seemed a self-possessed, tenacious young coach who’d be the perfect antidote for what ailed the Illinois hoops program. For 20 years coach Lou Henson, best known for his “Lou-do” comb-over, had projected his defensiveness and insecurity onto generations of Illinois basketball players, always recruiting well but always managing to undermine whatever natural talent came his way. Efrem Winters, Marcus Liberty, Bruce Douglas, Kiwane Garris: all came to Illinois projected for future stardom in the NBA and all ended their college careers with a tentative shooting touch and a lack of self-confidence. After Henson left, Illinois continued to underachieve during the brief Lon Kruger era, but Self was supposed to change that.

And through the 2001 NCAA tournament, change it he did. Last season the Illini finally developed the toughness they’d lacked. Huge European imports Robert Archibald from Scotland and Damir Krupalija from Bosnia gave the team muscle at center between homegrown forwards Brian Cook and Sergio McClain. Illinois’ new aggressiveness was so uncharacteristic that Lucas Johnson found himself labeled a dirty player for excelling at many of the tactics–clawing under the boards, pulling players down on himself–usually associated with “winners.” Unfortunately, just as the Illini seemed about to advance to the Final Four, their toughness proved to be their undoing. They ran into foul trouble against Arizona and lost in the regional final despite the heroic efforts of Archibald and shooting guard Cory Bradford, who briefly regained the scalding shooting touch he’d shown as a sophomore.

Because sophomore point guard Frank Williams eschewed the NBA draft, McClain was the only significant loss from last season’s team. But Johnson blew out his knee and missed more than half the season, Archibald and Krupalija suffered midseason injuries, and Bradford failed to shake his case of Illinitis, never regaining the consistent three-point shot he’d had as a sophomore. Worst of all, Williams, the most skilled player of all, was more enigmatic than ever–the epitome of an Illini head case. He would dominate one game in seemingly effortless fashion, gliding around the court in that distinctive style of his in which he never seems to break a sweat, hitting three-pointers or driving past opponents with ease for uncontested lay-ins, but then he’d be a nonfactor in the next game. And that’s how the Illini found themselves with a losing conference record, 4-5, halfway through the Big Ten season. Then Johnson came back, Archibald and Krupalija returned to health, and Chicago phenom freshman Luther Head settled into a starting role at small forward. The Illini ran the table in the Big Ten to tie for the conference title at 13-5. A loss in the conference tournament seemed a relatively minor setback: if it dropped them to 24-8 overall and a fourth seed in the NCAA Midwest Regional, it also allowed them to play the opening weekend before a “home” crowd at the United Center.

They looked so good in their first-round game against San Diego State it was scary. Williams was either scoring at will or gliding around dishing out passes to everyone else. Bradford and reserve sharpshooter Sean Harrington both found the range on threes, and so did Cook and even Head. Archibald and Krupalija lorded over the boards. The final was 93-64, with even the reserves taking no prisoners after the starters handed them a 30-point lead.

Perhaps the game really is too easy for Williams when he finds himself in the zone. Perhaps he’s the sort of natural who doesn’t know how to put himself in the zone, the way Michael Jordan did by getting to the free throw line when his shot wasn’t falling. For all Williams’s obvious greatness, something is lacking in his makeup. His selflessness can be a drawback, as he goes from letting the game “come to him” to disappearing completely. He’s already announced that this summer he’ll enter the NBA draft, and it’s hard to say what kind of pro he’ll make. A coach who can toughen him mentally, instilling discipline while also building his confidence, could make him great, but unfortunately I can count those coaches on one finger–Phil Jackson–and Williams doesn’t figure to end up playing behind Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. Probably no player would benefit more from a year alongside Jordan, but that supposes that Williams is not only there when the Washington Wizards pick but that Jordan decides to play another year. Williams could be great, or he could cash his signing bonus and disappear.

The second-round NCAA game, against upset-minded Creighton, found Williams putting up a trademark scoring line: 20 points, all netted in the second half after he took only two errant shots in the first. In the first half it was the big front line that kept the Illini ahead, but in the second half Williams was so good his team fell into the kind of daze that used to hit the Bulls: watch Michael do it. Just as something was lacking in Williams, so did the rest of the team lack last year’s mental toughness. And Self seemed powerless to goose them, just as he seemed powerless over Williams; he could only nurse a tentative smile on the sideline during the rough patches. Boom-Boom and I watched the game more or less unmolested by the Saint Patrick’s Day crowd in the bar of a Rush Street seafood restaurant. We fired up a couple of victory cigars as Illinois held on for a 72-60 win. Yet I think we both felt trepidation, even if we didn’t admit it.

The next game just didn’t augur well. For one thing, the Illini were playing Kansas, whom they’d beaten in the NCAAs a year ago, when they were the top seed and Kansas was fourth. But now the roles were reversed. What’s more, the Illini had never been the sort to keep a team down from one year to the next, not like the Jordan-era Bulls. They would need a killer instinct to deal with a Kansas team out for revenge. Finally, when the game was played Boom-Boom was stuck in the suburbs and I found myself at home nursing a sore throat–not to mention the dread of all psychosomatic Illini fans.

The Jayhawks came out looking insanely focused. They had more energy than the Illini, playing them belly to belly on defense and overplaying the passing lanes, and on offense they had a clear game plan: work the ball in and out waiting for a three-point shot to open up, and failing that take it hard to the hoop. They opened a 10-3 lead, but they also started piling up fouls on the defensive end. Kansas stars Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich both found themselves on the bench with three fouls just past the midway mark of the first half. Williams, meanwhile, missed his first six shots. Finally the Illini set a back screen to give him an easy lay-in; that made it 17-13 Kansas, and Illinois was crawling back into the game. Williams hit a three to make it 24-23 Kansas, and then coolly made an even longer shot to put Illinois up 26-24. Yet Kansas composed itself and closed out the half strong, turning a 32-32 tie into a 40-34 lead at intermission.

There was no clear omen as the second half opened. Krupalija hit a three, but Bradford missed an easy lay-in on a back cut. Head saved a ball on the floor and that led directly to a Williams three; Williams returned the favor with a lovely pass through traffic to Head on a fast break for a lay-in that tied the game at 45. The Illini combated Kansas’s inside-outside game by going to a zone defense with a trapping double-team in the post, but this allowed the Jayhawks better rebounding position, and in a battle of attrition they were killing the Illini on the offensive boards. A Kansas steal and a fast break led to a double-digit lead at 69-59 with just over five minutes to play.

The Illinois defense stiffened. Williams drove the baseline and passed outside to Harrington, who hit a crisp three, bang off the back rim and through the hoop, and it was 69-64. Good defense produced a Williams rebound, and he took the ball coast to coast through traffic to make it 69-66. The teams traded baskets, and when Archibald made one of two free throws Kansas led 71-69 with just over a minute to play. Hurrying the ball back and forth neither team looked composed and Cook badly missed an open three, but the Illini got the ball back for a final shot. They ran a complicated play, with Williams driving and passing back to Harrington, but Harrington passed on the shot. The ball finally found its way back to Williams, who had lingered along the baseline. His midrange jumper hit the back rim and caromed off the front rim and out. Kansas rebounded and converted a couple of free throws for the final 73-69.

In the end Williams had made 6 of 18 shots. He shot 50 percent after missing his first six, but he missed the last shot of his college career, the open baseline jumper that would have tied the game in its closing seconds. Self had been powerless to alter fate, and now he finds himself with the prospect of having to rebuild without Williams, Archibald, Krupalija, Bradford, and Johnson. “They are what they are,” Boom-Boom said matter-of-factly when he called the next day. And ever, it seems, shall remain.