The University of Illinois basketball team is haunted by its traditions. In this, I refer not to any evil spirits conjured up by its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, a noble, graceful, and courageous image of American tribal tradition (even if he is a composite character and not purely Illini), but to its penchant for–how do I put this without offending the forces of political correctness?–for choking.

Ever since coach Lou Henson revived the Fighting Illini basketball program in the late 70s with a team comprising Derek Holcomb, Mark Smith, and Eddie Johnson, Illinois has been famous for having great talents who were somehow soft in the head or, worse yet, in the heart. The Illini, plainly put, were known to crack under pressure, cower in the face of daunting odds, or, even more aggravatingly, shrink under their own expectations. The list of able players who went to Illinois and failed to fulfill their promise is lengthy, beginning with Efrem Winters and Marcus Liberty; it contains Bruce Douglas, the 1984 Big Ten Player of the Year who soon lost his shooting touch and offensive confidence, and Kiwane Garris, the Westinghouse product who never had a shooting touch to lose. The 1989 team that made the NCAA Final Four was an anomaly: that one year, Henson seemed to surrender his need to coach a constrained and cautious brand of basketball and just let the kids play, and Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson, and Kendall Gill responded by soaring to new heights. The good times didn’t last, and a few years ago Henson was replaced by Lon Kruger, a strong recruiter who hid many of Henson’s anal-retentive qualities behind a turtleneck sweater. At the end of last season, in which the Illini returned to respectability but fell victim to their usual faults, Kruger too departed, lured by the NBA, and was replaced by Bill Self, a drawling, determined, stern-jawed coach toughened by the hard winds of the western plains at Oral Roberts and Tulsa, where he’d taken sound programs and made them better. With Self–the name itself seemed to promise a new personality–the Illini were supposed to get tougher, mentally and physically, and throw off their old uncertain ways. And for most of the season they did just that.

Self mixed a sense of humor that kept the team loose with a harsh conditioning program introduced in a “boot camp” at the beginning of the season. The Illini responded by romping through the Big Ten schedule. Playing in their own Assembly Hall, they beat Michigan State, the team that had outmuscled and intimidated them in last year’s Big Ten tournament, and they suffered only three conference losses: at Iowa against the archrival Hawkeyes; at Penn State when Penn sharpshooter Joe Crispin, who’d suffered through a miserable night in Assembly Hall, got hot and burned them; and at Ohio State. None of these losses was humiliating–all the opponents were good teams–but that last one was tough, as it eventually forced the Illini to share the Big Ten regular-season title with Michigan State. The Illini had bragging rights with their win over MSU, but this year there’d been no game between them in Lansing. The OSU defeat hinted at that old inner weakness, and the anxiety was only mildly relieved when the Illini responded by winning the regular-season finale, a tough game at Minnesota previous Illinois teams might have found a way to lose.

That game put most of Illinois’ strengths on display. The Illini have a pair of star guards in Cory Bradford, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and Frank Williams, who wound up winning that award, but they also have three versatile starting forwards: Brian Cook, Marcus Griffin, and Sergio McClain. All can post up, shoot from outside, and put the ball on the floor. With Minnesota playing a triangle defense in the lane and two roving defenders watching Bradford and Williams, Illinois’ big three came out firing from 15 to 20 feet. All hit shots early as the Illini leaped to a 12-2 lead. This is an excellent team because it can adapt its tactics to whatever the situation dictates–running, shooting, or patient half-court offense–and it’s helped by the team’s almost completely distinct second unit: foreign-import big men Robert Archibald and Damir Krupalija, augmented by outside sharpshooter Sean Harrington and token thug Lucas Johnson (the white Michael Graham, for those old-timers who remember the great Patrick Ewing Georgetown teams), a group typically shepherded along by whichever starter Self decided was appropriate for the occasion, usually Williams, Bradford, or McClain. Of course, it helped that both the starters and the bench could pound the boards, the one constant in the Illinois game plan.

The dark side of this versatile team was the lack of any real top game of its own; the Illini usually found themselves playing up or down to whatever level the opponent dictated. In Minnesota for that season finale, the Golden Gophers lulled the Illini to sleep, then came back, took a 31-30 lead at halftime, and led well into the second half. Harrington pulled Illinois even and then ahead with a pair of three-point shots, and then the Illini played their trump card, the single biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s–in fact, between this year’s team and its entire disappointing tradition–Williams.

Williams played with McClain and Griffin on the great Peoria Manual high school teams of a few years ago, and he followed them to Illinois last season. Yet where last year he played like a freshman, this year he seemed like a man. He took games over in a Jordanesque fashion at crunch time and kept the Illini from folding. In Minnesota, after Harrington gave the Illini a 48-46 lead with six minutes to play, Williams exploded around a Griffin screen for a thundering dunk, then guided the Illini home to a 67-59 victory that ended their regular season at 23-6.

The Illini came to Chicago for last weekend’s Big Ten tournament at the United Center, and their opening game against Purdue went true to form. Both teams started quickly, and it was 10-7 Illinois before most of the sold-out crowd even sat down. Then Illinois’ beefy bench players came out and wore the Boilermakers down, opening a 19-14 lead. The starters returned, augmented by Harrington, who had a hot hand going, and built the lead to 25-17. Then it got good. Williams came down on a fast break with only one defender to beat. When the defender bumped him–no call, this being a typically physical Big Ten game–Williams absorbed the contact, jumped, and fired a one-handed running jumper from the side of the lane, bang, off the back rim and through the hoop. Bradford hit a three for a double-digit lead at 32-22, and then Williams, fed on a back cut with a sloppy lob pass by McClain, speared the ball one-handed and before coming down flipped it behind him to Krupalija for an easy lay-in. On a fast break moments later, he fed the trailing Krupalija for a dunk that made it 36-22, and the Illini coasted from there. The effortlessness of the victory was reflected by a play in the second half: Williams was fouled, the play was whistled dead, and he threw the ball thoughtlessly over his shoulder. It went in. It didn’t count, but it didn’t need to–the Illini won 83-66.

Better yet, Michigan State caught Penn State’s Crispin on a good day and went down in the first round, 65-63. There would be no grudge rematch with MSU, and the Illini had an open road to the tournament title. Yet their next game, last Saturday, was different–different and yet painfully familiar. They played down to Indiana’s level from the opening tip, as after almost five minutes the teams were tied at two. Then Williams got started. After almost losing his dribble behind his back, he hurled up a jumper that beat the shot clock and went in. He hit a three the next trip down the court to make it 9-4. He made a no-look pass from the perimeter to Archibald inside for an easy hoop, then drove into the lane and hit a high, arcing shot over Indiana center Kirk Haston. Illinois was up 21-10.

There, however, Illinois seemed to lose interest. Indiana came back to make it 21-18 before Williams shook the Illini awake and ushered them to a 29-26 halftime lead. Early in the second half Williams fed Cook a pass from the wing, and Cook’s open three from the top of the key put Illinois up 37-30. That’s when I wrote in my notebook that Williams looked like a man, not like a sophomore, and it turned out to be the kiss of death. Working a three-man game between Haston on the inside and Tom Coverdale on the outside, with Jared Jeffries going between the two, Indiana came back to take a 39-37 lead and soon widened it to 43-39. At that point, the Illinois players got noticeably tight and began shooting the ball with alligator arms. (Late in the game, at the line with a chance to pull the Illini within one, McClain missed everything with his first shot.) Coverdale, meanwhile, was goading Williams out of his game with a series of thumps and bumps. On top of that, he banked in a desperation three against Illinois’ sudden and surprising zone defense. Over the last several minutes, Williams looked more like George Michael than Michael Jordan–a show-off with no idea of what he was doing out there. He forced a shot hard off the back rim to leave it 51-47 Indiana. He converted just one of two free throws to make it 56-50. Then he made two free throws, but also dribbled twice into traffic for two of his team-high four turnovers. In the final minute, with the Illini clamping down on defense, he put up an awful shot. McClain saved the possession with an offensive rebound and was fouled, but after pulling the Illini to within three, he missed the second free throw. Cook nabbed the rebound and passed to McClain, who was fouled again. His first free throw was the air ball; he made the second. The Illini held with tough defense, but Indiana rebounded its own missed shot. With nine seconds to play Illinois fouled Coverdale, who suffered his own bout of choking, missing both free throws. Yet Williams saved him from being the goat. He came down with the rebound and dribbled the length of the court, never looking for anyone else, not even for a moment, and Haston, waiting at the other end, swatted aside his attempt at a scoop lay-in to preserve the 58-56 Indiana victory.

It wasn’t just the loss, it was how they lost. The NCAA powers that be, giving the Illini credit for their regular-season win over MSU, made Illinois the top seed in the Midwest regional of the tournament that began this Thursday, but suddenly all the old uncertainties were back in play. Was this a different Illinois team or the same? Williams was the enigma who held the answer: real thing or fraud, warrior or cigar-store Indian? Tradition dies hard, especially a tradition that involves the self-image of a people.