Although based in Urbana-Champaign, the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team fits perfectly into the Chicago sports continuum. Ever since Lou Henson revitalized the program 25 years ago, it has been known for producing talented teams and players who never quite live up to their promise. They’re soft; they’re fragile; they’re brittle; they are, in Kerry Wood’s word of choice, chokers. Henson was known for being a defense-oriented coach, almost anally compulsive on the offensive end, thus putting a bad case of the shakes into coulda-been stars like Bruce Douglas. The Illini broke free of Henson’s restraints and were allowed to soar for one brief season–the Kenny Battle-Kendall Gill team of 1989, christened the Flying Illini by frantic ESPN commentator Dick Vitale–but even then, though they made it to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, they lost to a Michigan team they had beaten twice, and the Wolverines went on to win the championship.
Lon Kruger, of the turtleneck sweaters, succeeded Henson and promised to shake up the Illini and allow them to breathe, but he was gone to the pros before he could follow through. Capable, personable Bill Self from Tulsa seemed to make it his mission to alter the Illini’s self-definition, to make them mentally and physically tougher, but still they could never get over the hump in the NCAAs, and last year they didn’t even survive the first weekend, upset by Notre Dame in the second round. After that, Self too was gone, to the more gloried basketball program at Kansas. Why strain to alter a team’s character when you can go to a team that already has what you’re after?
So when Bruce Weber moved up from Southern Illinois to replace Self, he had his work cut out for him. For one thing, Illinois alumni look down on all other colleges in the state–they even find ways to look down on Northwestern–and the idea of someone who had been coaching dullards (no matter his success) taking over this team of skittish, pensive Hamlet-esque thoroughbreds seemed improper to many–both players and fans. What’s more, Self had been popular–especially with the players, including the three star freshmen his last year that he’d recruited, Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and James Augustine–while Weber was considered unproven at this level. Though a preseason favorite, as those three all were returning as sophomores, the Illini sputtered through the early going and lost a couple of key games on the road when Big Ten play began, getting blown out at Wisconsin. The team seemed to have found, unfortunately, a coach entirely consistent with its stereotypical personality.
Yet something happened with a win at Indiana in which the Illini came from seven points down at halftime, a game that signaled the team’s turning calamity to its advantage on a couple of fronts. After Williams suffered a broken jaw in December, he lost much of his baby fat on a liquid diet, and Brown–one of Self’s most loyal champions–filled the void after looking sluggish and uninspired earlier in the season. Similarly, Luther Head, who had seemed on his way to following the usual Illini career spiral suffered by former Chicago Public League stars (anyone remember Efrem Winters?), complete with charges of breaking and entering and driving without a license, responded to the faith Weber put in him and emerged an explosive player who aroused visions of the Flying Illini. The Illini began to put together victories, and they were winning on the road, a notoriously difficult thing to do given Big Ten officiating and the intensity of home crowds.
Lo and behold, early last week the Illini had a chance to win their first outright Big Ten title since 1952, when John “Red” Kerr was a sophomore at Illinois. Michigan State had led most of the season but stumbled at the end, allowing the Illini to claim the crown if they won their last two games on the road. They got the first in Purdue, with Head scoring 19 points, including the winning basket in overtime. That set up a potentially humiliating game at Ohio State. But the Illini, showing a rare big-game killer instinct, pounced on the Buckeyes with seven unanswered points in the first minute-plus and shifted straight into showtime. The fleet Brown, who scoots across the floor like a water spider, dished a behind-the-back trailer pass to junior forward Roger Powell to put the Illini up 23-12, and Brown and Head added back-to-back three-pointers to make it 29-14 on the way to a 34-22 halftime lead. They padded that out to 44-27 after another Brown three that found him flashing an orange smile through his plastic tooth guard. Then Ohio State came back, pounding the ball in to Terence Dials, exploiting the weak Illini front line. This was when previous Illinois teams would have packed it in. Sure enough, the Illini’s three-point shots were suddenly falling short; yet Brown and Williams kept running the offense, getting baskets when they needed them, and the Illini weathered the rally to win 64-63 and capture the championship.
With three days to prepare for the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, the rested Brown, Williams, and Head cranked their weaving, whirling perimeter game into high gear and blew Indiana off the court at the start of their opening game last Friday. Head went off like a rocket, hitting two threes and scoring ten points as the Illini opened a 14-5 lead. After that, Williams and Brown were circling, probing for an opening, each giving the ball to the other until one found a way through to the hoop and either an open pass or a shot. Teams with two point guards rarely seem in sync (see the Bulls, or better yet, don’t), because, as it’s commonly said, there aren’t enough balls to go around, yet Williams and Brown operated like a pair of hands. The Illini led 28-21 at intermission. To open the second half, Head, playing with confidence and Public League brio, forced a fast break and put in the layin with a foul, adding the free throw for a three-point play. When Brown found him cutting to the hoop for an alley-oop, Head had a career-high 20 points and the Illini a 47-35 lead. Brown had to leave the game with four fouls after scrapping for a couple of loose balls, and Indiana put together a 19-9 run as he sat on the bench, but the instant he came back the Illini returned to life. He twice dished to Williams for three-pointers as Illinois moved out to a 63-54 lead on the way to a deceptively comfortable 71-59 final. Head finished with 29.
Saturday’s semifinal against Michigan was genuinely comfortable. The Illini pushed out to a 13-5 lead, extended the lead to 28-13 when Brown dished an over-the-shoulder trailer pass to Head for a flying tomahawk dunk, and coasted to halftime up 37-29. Michigan threatened to make it close in the second half, but Brown hit a prosize three to put the Illini up 58-48, and they cruised to a 74-60 win, setting up a rubber-game rematch with Wisconsin. Yet the trademark of the Illini (and of the Cubs, and of the White Sox) is that just when they’ve convinced a fan they’ve changed, they pull the rug out from under themselves. Even though by this time they’d won 12 straight, an impressive 8 of those away from Assembly Hall in Champaign, Illinois remained weak inside–Augustine had never really filled the shoes of the graduated Brian Cook, much less the dear departed Robert Archibald, the oversize Scotsman. Wisconsin exploited the weakness right away, pounding the ball inside. The Badgers answered the Illini’s three-guard offense with a five-post offense, at various points putting everyone down near the hoop, especially whoever was being guarded by the determined but physically overmatched Brown. The refs were calling a typical Big Ten game in which they tended to let them play, but they were generous calling fouls on shots near the hoop and this favored Wisconsin’s style over Illinois’ motion offense on the perimeter. Weber was left with nothing to do but gape at the officials as the Illini fell into a 16-6 hole. They rallied, Brown’s three pulling them to 26-19, but the Badgers went back out to a 35-23 lead at halftime. Head slipped into foul trouble with a couple of ill-advised swipes at Wisconsin star Devin Harris, and Harris came out in the second half taking the ball straight at him. With Head backing away, Harris scored 14 straight Wisconsin points to give him 20 for the game early in the second half, and Wisconsin led 46-28. The Illini went quietly, Weber’s mouth still agape, as Wisconsin won 70-53.
Just when the Illini seemed to have mastered their fate, they fell victim to the old familiar frailties and collapses. Just when Weber seemed to have taken Self’s recruits and made them into something different and better, they returned to their team’s traditional ways. Given that this was considered a down year for the Big Ten, all the Illini could muster as regular-season champions was a fifth seed in one of the 16-team regionals of the NCAA tournament, and an impending second-round battle against the fierce Cincinnati Bearcats. After winning 12 in a row, they looked uncertain to survive the first weekend. All these players figure to return next season, but after the Wisconsin game they appeared to be on the old Illini treadmill. Dusty Baker fought all last season to alter the Cubs’ sense of self, to do away with the past, the chokes, and the curses, and even though in the end the Cubs succumbed to them once again, fans were left shouting, “Wait till next year!” louder than ever. The Illini, however, succeeded in taking the fun and anticipation out of waiting for next year–and this year wasn’t even done yet.