Losing Kendall Gill for about a third of the season was, in hindsight, the best thing that could have happened to the University of Illinois basketball team this year. No one–not even Gill’s greatest admirer–was aware of how important he was to the Fighting Illini. Quick and thin, intelligent on the court, with a fine shooting touch, a sense for passing, and long, spidery arms reminiscent of the 70s star Charlie Scott, Gill remains if not the best player on the Illini then certainly the most difficult to replace. He has a sense for understanding what needs to be done on the court at any given moment, and he does it–or he gets the ball to someone else who can. That’s the sort of player a team grows dependent upon; it’s the sort of player who creates championship seasons.

Yet all this doesn’t mean that all the Illini needed to become a Final Four team was, simply, to understand who the most valuable player was. What it means is that the Illini–historical choke artists that they are, a typical Chicago team–needed and need a little something extra to keep their minds occupied. Gill has become that thing–call it a court mojo. He went down with a stress fracture in his foot in the very game in which the Illini were laying claim to the number-one ranking in college basketball. They were undefeated when they beat Georgia Tech to go 18-0, and without Gill they lost their next game, to the then underrated Minnesota Golden Gophers. They continued their uneven play until they finally got it together enough to struggle home as Big Ten also-rans but also as a certain NCAA Tournament team, and when Gill returned–for the last two games of the year–they went about proving they were a good deal better than that. This allowed them to usurp Indiana’s birthright to a top regional seeding in the tournament, but more important it established Gill as their lucky charm. Without him, they are a normal team, but with him they are invincible. For a group as skittish and as prone to outthinking itself as the Illini, that has made all the difference. They are still undefeated with Gill in the lineup.

This self-confidence has utterly overwhelmed the hesitancy common to all previous Lou Henson teams at Illinois, and it has had a pleasant effect on the coach himself. Whereas Henson has always been a bit befuddled once within the living organism of a game in progress, and whereas this has, in the past, prompted him to force the Illini to play a stilted, uptight offense that was crippling to the team but that at least he could explain to the reporters afterward, the Henson of 1989 is if not patient–and certainly not relaxed–then at least willing to let the team play, and watch and live with what happens. And that has always been the quality the Illini have most lacked.

There are times this team runs loose like a pack of wild dogs, as in last Friday’s regional semifinal against Louisville. That they straighten themselves out when they’re out of control is testimony to what great players–not mere “athletes,” as the cliche has gone–they are. Here, Gill again plays the essential role. In Sunday’s Midwest Regional final–the game to determine the Final Four berth–Illinois fell behind 13 points to Syracuse in the first half. They did so by failing to adjust to Syracuse’s man-on-man defense after burning its zone defense for a couple of easy alley-oops to Kenny Battle and an early lead of their own. (A Henson time-out during the Syracuse run was, as usual, ineffective. Syracuse scored eight points in a row to take a 19-13 lead, Henson took a time-out, but the Illini came back looking even more confused than they had been, allowing the Orangemen six more unanswered points.) They scrambled back by playing a tougher defense, denying Syracuse easy points on the fast break, by extending the Syracuse offense with a full-court press, and by simply toughing it out on offense, getting the rebounds when the shots wouldn’t go and refusing to take bad shots of their own. As the Illini narrowed the lead but still trailed, they got Gill running a fast break that quickly turned into a three-on-two, with the Syracuse players backpedaling. Gill could have pressed the ball, gotten an almost certain foul, and gone to the line, but maybe not, and so instead he cut across the court, set the play up, and made a pass that got the Illini their two points on this trip down the court. It wasn’t a flashy or a pivotal play; it wasn’t any more essential than any other sequence of the game. Yet it was symptomatic of how this Illini team pretty much runs itself, even under the most difficult circumstances. It’s the sort of play we’ve wanted to see from the Illini for ten years.

Henson, after 15 years of coaching Illinois, has finally matured. His laissez-faire approach this year has played both to his strengths and the team’s. Never a great bench coach, rarely seeing the strategy behind the time-out, cautious and overly thematic in setting specific offensive plays, Henson was the single greatest liability on many previous Illinois teams. What he was was a great recruiter and a fine defensive coach–two skills that don’t always match up well. Yet these talents have complemented each other this year. Having recruited as fine and as uninhibited a group of players as he’s ever had–and perhaps with the lack of a dominating center giving him the willingness to gamble on their natural abilities–he’s given them the tactics to play a tough defense and told them that’s what should set up their offense. From moment to moment, the Illinois offense is only as good as its defense, but the defense is usually strong, and once started the offense runs of its own volition.

Henson has also displayed an amazing feeling for the temperament of the team and of the individual players–amazing because in the past he has always trodden upon such subtleties. He reined in high school stars like Efrem Winters and Bruce Douglas to the point where they denied their own talents and played like mere cogs in Henson’s rusty offensive machine. Players as talented as Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson refuse such treatment. Yet what’s most telling is Henson’s treatment of Marcus Liberty, the sophomore out of Martin Luther King High School who missed his first year last season because of academic problems. Henson has forced Liberty to play defense to earn playing time–a tactic that hurt him with Winters–but he’s been uncommonly forgiving of Liberty’s frequent mistakes. It’s paid some dividends. Against Louisville last Friday, Liberty replaced the temporarily injured Battle in the starting lineup. The Illini game plan was, remarkably, to get the ball inside against the Cardinals’ bigger, slower players and get them in foul trouble. This Liberty did, responding with 14 points and eight rebounds in one of his best games of the season. He even displayed that quick-release turnaround jumper so impressive in the state high school tournaments of two and three years ago. When Illinois center Lowell Hamilton went down before the next game with Syracuse, Liberty was not only in the starting lineup, he was shifted into the center position against Syracuse’s domineering Derrick Coleman, and the Illini tried to get him the ball the first few times down the court. This we attribute to Henson trying to get the young player off to a good start. It didn’t work–Liberty missed his first two shots and, frustrated, committed two quick fouls–but that doesn’t mean it was bad basketball. If Liberty hits those first two, the Illini never trail and win going away. Give Henson credit for attempting to play to the strengths–and overcome the weaknesses–of his players.

The most important matchup of last Sunday’s game was between the guards Gill and Sherman Douglas of the Orangemen. CBS TV announcers Verne Lundquist and Tom Heinsohn were very much into pointing this out when Douglas was shining in the early going, but as the game dragged on and the balance began to tip noticeably in Gill’s direction, they let the point go. Perhaps they failed to notice it because Gill wore Douglas down in the patient, persistent manner of water falling on a rock. Douglas’s first-half offense was set up by strong Syracuse play on the boards and by his running a quick fast break. Yet after each Syracuse basket the Illini would come back, slowly up the floor, and when they scored they pressed Syracuse on the inbounds, with Gill more often than not on Douglas. Douglas was, it’s true, the quicker player of the two, but Gill neutralized this by tiring Douglas out, by forcing him to earn even the slightest advantages; in the second half Douglas was gassed, committing stupid fouls, while Gill was leaping down the free-throw lane for impressive and important tip-jams on the rebound.

The growth of the NCAA Tournament has been one of the great stories of the decade. It’s an event–in its length, breadth, and expanse–made for the cable-television era. It fills the previously dead time of year between football and baseball seasons quite well, calling into question the manufactured sporting events of the 70s, such as The Superstars. (Jesus, remember that crapola?) The very unpredictability of a single-elimination tournament involving so many talented teams has made the event a natural for the office pool, involving people who normally don’t give sports a second thought this time of year. On the other hand, ESPN’s coverage of the small-college basketball tournaments that set up the lower seedings in the tourney–allowing the dedicated fan to form an opinion on previously unseen teams and perhaps get a line on a tourney Cinderella–shows how the tournament now involves even the sports hound to the core of his or her being. Of the top ten sporting events of the decade, at least two are NCAA Tournament finals: both of Georgetown’s losses with Patrick Ewing border on the tragic and are certainly historic. Michael Jordan hit the game-winner for North Carolina in 1982, with Fred Brown throwing the ball away for the Hoyas in the final seconds, and three years later Villanova upset Georgetown with a patient offense and deadeye shooting in the last tournament run without a shot clock. This year’s Final Four pairings do not appear to offer that sort of drama–at least not for any but the four strains of partisan fans–but it may yet surprise us. And how can anyone criticize a tournament for being too big when it still allows moments such as the Illini doing their doo-wop rap after beating Syracuse?