Unlike so many disappointing Chicago-area sports franchises in 2002, the University of Illinois men’s basketball team began the current season without high expectations. But the Fighting Illini then won their first eight games, infecting even the most cynical alumnus with visions not only of a third straight Big Ten title but also–dare I suggest it?–of reaching the NCAA Final Four. No sooner had the Illini raised hopes, however, than they surrendered their unbeaten record last Saturday in what amounted to their first real road test. It was a failure that didn’t compare with the full-season flops of the Bears, Cubs, and White Sox, but it brought the Chicago sports year to a fitting conclusion. And it was an early reason to fear that next year (now this year) might not offer anything different–not in the NCAA tournament in March nor in any other season.

But the Illini deserve credit for stirring up some excitement at a time when Chicago fans couldn’t have been more guarded–and they’re always guarded about the Illini. As I’ve written before, the Illini fit right in with Chicago’s sports teams because they have such a long and distinguished reputation as, well, chokers. There’s no other word for it–the Illini put together talented teams that somehow always find a way to squander that talent.

Frank Williams, from last year’s squad, probably peaked as a sophomore, and he never really gained the composure that would make him a complete player–which puts him in the company of Illinois guards ranging from Kiwane Garris to Bruce Douglas. When push came to shove in the NCAA tournament, only Scottish center Robert Archibald proved himself a warrior. Coach Bill Self, in his second year, won a second straight conference title–albeit in a four-way tie following a scrum of a regular season–but the gritty, combative attitude he had instilled the year before seemed to evaporate in the tournament.

So this looked like a rebuilding year, with a team full of underclassmen. Self was soon starting three freshmen: forward James Augustine, out of south-suburban Lincoln-Way, and the guard tandem of Deron Williams from Texas and Dee Brown from west-suburban Proviso East. But the Illini came out strong, and as every other Big Ten team fell by the wayside–including Indiana in a bitter game with rival Kentucky–they kept winning. Here at the United Center they beat a downtrodden Temple that lacked coach John Chaney, out with pneumonia, and–while Indiana was losing to Kentucky–claimed their first prestigious win of the season, an 85-70 thrashing of Missouri, which entered the game likewise unbeaten, having been revived by former Duke assistant Quin Snyder. That win lifted the Illini to 8-0 and eventually to seventh in the national rankings. The key to their early success, agreed everyone up to and including Self, was the impressive play of Brown.

Listed at an even six feet tall, Brown doesn’t look that big, mainly because he affects the playground dress–baggy shorts, deceptively large white shoes with black trim, and relatively high white socks, higher than Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen used to wear, anyway–that’s been all the rage at the major colleges and in the NBA in recent years. Brown also sports a distinctive Nike headband, wearing it with the swoosh logo twisted a little so that it’s over his right eye rather than in the center of his forehead, which somehow gives the impression of a beret worn at a rakish tilt. He looks like a kid and he plays like a kid, all quicksilver quickness as he scoots across the court like a water bug; in short, he’s Allen Iverson without the tattoos, the firearms, and, of course, the attitude, which makes all the difference. He also has remarkable composure for a freshman, making him the closest thing the Illini have ever had to Isiah Thomas when he was at Indiana.

Whenever I saw the Illini in the early going, I was struck by how Brown never shied from taking a shot but didn’t look selfishly for it either. He had a clear feel for the rhythm of a game, for when to force a fast break to get the opponents back on their heels and when to rein in his offense and slow the game to give his teammates a chance to regain focus. Missouri was beaten by and large by a swarming Illini defense, a Self source of pride and an Illini trademark going back to the Lou Henson era; but in addition to hounding the Missouri guards on the perimeter, Brown contributed to making the offense run smoothly.

The Missouri game took place on neutral turf in Saint Louis, so Saturday’s trip to Memphis was the Illini’s first true test on the road. I was watching to see how Brown responded, and on Illinois’ first possession he made a crisp two-handed pass to senior forward Brian Cook on a backdoor cut to the hoop. Cook was fouled and made both free throws as the Illini drew first blood. Defense dominated early, and the Illini had trouble finding their range from outside in the unfamiliar arena while Memphis hit a series of three-pointers. Down 17-11, Brown took an outlet pass from Augustine and forced a fast break. Fouled, he made both free throws. Cook found an opening on the floor and his long jumper made it 17-15. Then Brown cruised the perimeter before passing back to Augustine for an open three that put the Illini in front, 18-17. The most impressive play came a few minutes later. Brown passed on a halfway-open three–a shot a more scoring-minded player would have taken without thinking–and put the ball on the floor to drive past an Augustine screen and into the clear. Picked up by Augustine’s defender, he halted–again not forcing the issue–and dribbled back the other way around Augustine. This time Brown’s defender failed to pick him up, and Brown calmly popped an open three to put the Illini in front at 23-22. It was a heady and considered sequence, and when the Illini turned it on at the end of the first half to take a 37-31 lead they aroused memories of the way the championship-era Bulls used to do it.

But in the second half the ghosts arose anew. Memphis came out and hit three straight threes to reclaim the lead at 40-37. The Illini looked flustered, especially Cook, who was having a game every bit as bad as his disappearing act in last season’s NCAA tournament. The sputtering offense couldn’t put the ball in Brown’s capable hands–partly because of the overplaying Memphis defense, partly because they were stupid. The Illini went four minutes without a field goal and fell behind 58-50 midway through the second half. Cook came off the bench with renewed purpose and hit two shots to make it 58-54, but Memphis ran the lead back out to eight at 62-54. Self was switching back and forth between an array of zone defenses–including at one point a box-and-chaser, with four men playing zone while Brown went man-to-man with his point guard counterpart–and a straight man-to-man, but Memphis recognized each shift and altered its tactics accordingly. When the Tigers caught the Illini in a zone they hit a three, or if they missed it they outpositioned the Illini for the offensive rebound. Against a man-to-man defense they pounded the ball inside to Chris Massie, who was guarded either by Cook playing in foul trouble or the taller but spindlier Nick Smith. Still, the Illini did put together some stops when it counted. Cook converted a nice inbound pass with a reverse layup to narrow the gap to 65-61, then rolled in a hook shot with what appeared to be pure topspin to make it 65-63. Brown pushed a fast break but missed the shot, and senior forward Blandon Ferguson was fouled on the rebound. He made one of two, and Memphis led 65-64 with 4:40 to play. Again the momentum swung and Memphis took a 71-66 lead, but Cook rallied the Illini by hitting a three trailing a fast break as he scored seven straight points to tie the game at 71 with 90 seconds left.

That’s as good as it got for the Illini. Memphis stymied Cook and Brown, and nobody else stepped up. Smith rolled a short open jumper across the back iron. Williams looked plucky–as plucky as someone sporting an Albert Brooks haircut can look, anyway–driving for a slam dunk and getting fouled, but he left both free throws badly short. Sean Harrington, the old Elgin sharpshooter who has filled out as a senior, passed on a late three and flicked the ball to Brown, who calmly sank it to give Illlinois one last shot at 76-74 with nine seconds left. But Memphis managed the final seconds well enough to win 77-74.

The dispiriting thing was the way the Illini lost track of Brown for an inexcusably large stretch of the second half, while Self’s array of defenses came off as irresolute rather than confounding. The Illini appear to lack bulk: between the slight sophomore center Smith and the tall, thin freshman Augustine–whose shaven head and chin beard give him a monkish look that befits his name–they may not have enough beef to combat the rough-and-tumble, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses of the Big Ten. Against Memphis, they needed bigger things from backup power forward Roger Powell, the sophomore from Joliet. Harrington and sophomore Manley product Luther Head were also nonfactors. When Harrington is hitting his shot and Head is coming confidently off the bench, the Illini make it look easy, which is what they did in the early rounds of last season’s NCAAs. Williams’s struggles at the line made him a liability at crunch time, and Cook’s disappearance in a big game was irksome. Yet he persevered to finish with 21 points, just above his season average, and Brown looked together–right up to his long, potentially game-tying last shot, which fell short. The Illini battled back each time they fell behind, and they said all the right things afterward about correcting mistakes and learning from defeat.

Having brought in Brown, Augustine, and Williams to join Head and Powell, Self has certainly established himself as a recruiter. Now a fan determined to hope can readily believe that Brown, though but a freshman, will give the Illini the leadership they’ll need to confront the season’s mounting pressures. The year is new and Brown is new, so the Illini must be new and different. A properly defeatist Illini fan recognizes that Brown is probably just now getting a sense of how much history and tradition he’s up against. Even so, it’s still too early for that fan to start waiting for next year.