Illini Bracket - 1 vs. 16
First off, I did not plan for this to be two teams that were two seasons apart. I had hoped to avoid any matchups of teams with some of the same players, especially in the first round. Kind of like the committee avoiding conference matchups early.
But I started with the list of Illini teams in the NCAA Tournament in my lifetime (born in 1972), and then I separated out back-to-back teams (as I said in the other post, I didn't want the 2000 team matching up against the 2001 team because it was basically the exact same team), and that left me with 15 teams. I went back in and added 1994 (between 1993 and 1995) to get to 16 teams and that slid 2007 down to the 16 line.
I imagine this is what the committee feels like in this instance. You don't like that you look at your bracket and see 2005 vs. 2007 in the first round matchup, but the fact that it's probably not going to matter means you just toss the matchup out there and move on to the next game.
I plan to do this for every season - the guy who sent me the idea said he wanted to read in-depth pieces about all of the teams before he was a fan - but it seems rather pointless for 2005. Even if you are very young and don't know much about any teams before, say, 2013, you probably still know a lot about the 2005 Illini. But the format is the format, so here we go.
(1) 2004-05 Illini
Tournament seed: 1
Tournament result: lost 75-70 to North Carolina in national title game
I considered listing the starting five, but for many of the teams we'll get to in the coming days, the starting lineup changed during the season. For example, what starting lineup would I use for this season? The one with Giorgi was used the most, but the one that would have been used in the Tournament would have seen Giorgi coming off the bench. It's the same for many of the teams we'll get to, so I don't think I can list a Starting Five for other teams.
But I can for this one: Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Roger Powell, James Augustine. It was the same starting lineup for two seasons. There probably hasn't been an Illini starting lineup this ensconced in program history.
(I should note - this is why "here's everything you should know about the 2005 Illini before making your pick" posts are so hard. I'm going to say "it was the same starting lineup for two seasons" and then someone will remind me that Brian Randle started in November of 2003 while Luther Head was suspended and that Nick Smith started a few games that 2003-04 season as well. People are waiting by their phones to call CBS and tell them that Rory McIlroy didn't place his ball directly in front of his ball marker on the 15th green, so writing these always brings me anxiety.)
What needs to be said about this team? I guess I can talk about the moment where I knew that this team had a chance to get to the Final Four. It was the Wooden game in Indianapolis against Gonzaga on Thanksgiving weekend. I had some flooding in my basement at my old house, and I had planned to work on cleaning up the basement that whole weekend, but I took a break for that game. I remember exactly where I was sitting in front of my TV (sitting on the old chair because I didn't want to sit on the nice couch in my dirty clothes) at halftime of that game, wondering how this team could be so good. That first half might have been the best performance of the whole season. A ranked Gonzaga and we completely and utterly destroyed them like we were playing Whitworth University in Spokane.
The rest of the season felt different after that. My friend Carmen and I attended the Wake Forest game the following week, and it remains the greatest Illini game I've ever seen in the Assembly Hall/SFC. He and I were just talking about it last week. Not only do you beat #1 when you're #5 - you run them off the floor and win by 18 (in a game that could have easily been 35+). We'll never see another game like it.
I'm this far in and I still feel silly recapping that team. If you didn't live it, you had to have already read up on this team. 29-0 going into the final regular season game at Ohio State, a loss there (which was a relief for me because I didn't want the pressure of the unbeaten streak carrying over into the title game, but I'm weird), and then roll through the BTT and the NCAA Tournament until the epic comeback against Arizona. Out of respect to the comeback, I'm not even going to mention it here because if you don't know about it please leave the room.
The Final Four happens 4 miles from my house, I'm there to watch the second-half rout of Louisville in the semifinal game, and then it's 70-70 with a minute and a half left in the title game after we came all the way back from a double digit deficit... and then North Carolina scores the final five points of the game and the dream is over.
The rest of my life is focused on getting back to that point and winning the final 90 seconds. It's the one sports championship I need.
Tournament seed: 12
Tournament result: lost 54-52 to Virginia Tech in the first round
It seems appropriate that the Last Team In in 2007 is the Last Team In for this bracket. It also seems somewhat appropriate to look at the contrast of the 2005 team and the 2007 team to map out what happened since those final 90 seconds against North Carolina.
First, the "last team in". We were right on the bubble that year - I remember listening to the Indiana game in the second round of the BTT on the radio, thinking we needed that win to get to the right side of the bubble, dying with every play, and we pulled it out in overtime. Those two BTT wins were just enough to push us over the hump. There were three at-large 12-seeds - Illinois, Arkansas, and Old Dominion, so those were the last three teams to get in. As I recall, some committee member (the chairman?) said that we were the very last team to make the bracket.
But we were only a 12-seed. And 5-seed Virginia Tech loomed. My wife and I had the same spring break trip planned with our boys as we had the previous March Madness - meet my sister (with her kids) at Great Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells. So, unfortunately, I watched the Virginia Tech loss in the same place as where I watched the Washington loss the year before. Both losses - had a lead, blow it late - stick with me to this day. Especially Virginia Tech because in my memory, the pucker could have been avoided but we tried to run clock on every possession, got out of any rhythm whatsoever, and fell apart.
I guess I kind of jumped to the end there with the Virginia Tech loss. I should talk about the season.
The thing that sticks out now, 13 years later: the contrast of that team vs. the team that came before. Deron, Dee, Luther, Roger, and Augie: 1-seed. Dee and Augie still remain but Deron, Luther, and Roger are gone: 4-seed. Dee and Augie graduate: 12-seed. In those four seasons we went 1-seed, 4-seed, 12-seed, losing season. The coaching didn't change, but the roster certainly did.
That season also had perhaps the largest Illini off-the-court incident of the past 15 years - Jamar Smith's accident. Smith, driving drunk in the snow, gets into an accident and teammate Brian Carlwell is knocked unconscious. To make matters worse, he doesn't call 911 - he drives the badly damaged car (with an unconscious teammate inside) to another teammate's apartment complex to discuss what to do. Two women in the parking lot notice an unconscious man in a damaged car and call 911. (Carlwell survived, eventually transferring to San Diego State).
The season, which was very "turn these machines back on!" to begin with, kept tumbling from there. I remember the optimism before the season (myself included), thinking that a team coming of a seven-year run of 4-seed, 1-seed, 4-seed, 4-seed, 5-seed, 1-seed, 4-seed would simply grab another top-4 seed. When your team is rolling like that you feel invincible.
So I would submit that no season felt as "tumbling down a mountainside trying to grab onto a branch or something" as that one. In October, "we'll just plug in the next set of great Illini players and get a 3-seed because this is just what we do". In April, "12-seed, first round loss, and now we might not even make the Tournament next year?". Strap in, 2007-me. It's about to get a LOT worse.
Hey hey, I've really sold the 2007 team here, haven't I? What a fair and balanced report this was. OK, time to go to Twitter and vote! Which team wins this first-round matchup? 2005 or 2007?
I have a guess.