Illini Bracket - 5 vs. 12
Ah yes, the dreaded 5 vs. 12 matchup. And this one is a really good one. The 5-seed has flaws - they lost in the biggest NCAA Tournament upset in Illini history. The 12-seed is plucky - they very nearly made the Sweet 16 after an 8-10 trip through the Big Ten. I'm really curious to see the voting here.
(Although, given the recency bias in the current voting for 2020 vs. 1998, maybe I don't want to see the results. I'm OK with 2020 winning even though my pick would be 1998. But winning with 74% of the vote? Sorry, but there's absolutely no way 2020 is "clearly better" as the results currently show. Wait - I'm the committee, and the committee shouldn't have opinions like this. Back to our Sweet Sixteen.)
(5) 1986-87 Illini
Tournament seed: 3
Tournament result: lost 68-67 to 14-seed Austin Peay in the first round
We only have one major upset in NCAA Tournament history. Nobody remembers how close we came to the biggest upset in NCAA history (1-seed Illinois 77, 16-seed McNeese State 71 in 1989), and had that happened we would have forgotten all about Austin Peay. But it didn't happen, and we pulled out all of our other NCAA Tournament potential upsets, and so the words "Austin Peay" live forever in Illini lore.
Which is so unfair to the 1987 team. I hate that they're remembered for that. This was an incredible team with a superstar leading them (Ken Norman) and all they'll be remembered for is Austin Peay.
Yes, superstar. Quick, someone ask me my favorite Illini player of all time. Go ahead, ask.
Ken Norman. SNAKE. Man, what a player.
If you're wondering what I was researching when I tweeted "name the five back-to-back 1st-team All Big Ten players during this time period" today, this was it. I knew that Kenny Norman was back-to-back (because I quote it to people all the time), so I looked up what other Illini players during this 40-year stretch had gone back-to-back 1st team. The list:
Ken Norman in 1986 and 1987
Kiwane Garris in 1996 and 1997
Frank Williams in 2001 and 2002
Deron Williams in 2004 and 2005
Dee Brown in 2005 and 2006
There were other players in history who had pulled this off - Ray Woods was back-to-back in 1915 and 1916, and Gene Vance pulled it off in 1942 and 1943, plus others - but in this time period we're looking at with this bracket (1981 to 2020), those are the only five. Nick Anderson went 2nd team-1st team. Brian Cook went 2nd team-2nd team-1st team. Demetri McCamey went 1st team-3rd team. Back-to-back 1st team is really hard to do. Especially today when a sophomore 1st-teamer (like Ayo) almost certainly declares for the draft.
Let's get back to Ken Norman. His statistics in 1986-87:
20.7 points per game
9.8 rebounds per game
1st on the team in blocks
3rd on the team in assists
3rd on the team in steals
He was Mr. Everything. I was so convinced that team was going to the Final Four.
I guess I should probably try to put that season in perspective. It was the old guys and the young guys. That 1986 recruiting class was one of the top classes in the country, yet they were worked in slowly because the three seniors had their positions on lockdown. Tony Wysinger was the senior point guard, Doug Altenberger was the senior shooting guard, and Ken Norman controlled the paint. Sprinkle in sophomore Lowell Hamilton and junior Glynn Blackwell and there just weren't many minutes for those 1986 freshmen (Gill, Bardo, Smith).
Now, I should note that the star of the 1986 class - Nick Anderson - was Prop 48 so he could not play. For you kids, Prop 48 was the old "academic redshirt" rule. You could gain entrance to the University (usually after completing a summer bridge program), but you were ineligible to compete your freshman year. That's why Nick Anderson didn't play in 1986-87 and why Frankie Williams didn't play in 1998-99. So without Anderson, Lou Henson sprinkled in minutes for Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, and Larry Smith in '87.
(Also, Kenny Battle was redshirting after transferring from Northern Illinois. Can you imagine that scout team with Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson?)
If you're an old and you just found yourself saying "Doug Altenberger was still around in 1986-87?", you have good reason to. Altenberger hurt his knee in 1985-86 and chose to take a medical redshirt. So he came back in 1986-87 for a second senior season.
And he was so good. That backcourt could SHOOT, man. That was the first year that the three-pointer was adopted nationwide (before that it was mostly conferences testing it out), and we were so good. Altenberger: 47.5% from three. Wysinger: 46.7%.
I was in eighth grade, and this was my first-ever TEAM team. I remember 83 and 84 - I even remember my dad going to the 1980 Braggin' Rights game, the first one played in St. Louis (I was 7 and didn't go) - but 1987 was follow every game, learn every statistic, tear through any article I could find. Which is why that Austin Peay loss was one of the most devastating losses of my childhood. OK, life.
I still feel like that team would have gone to the Final Four had they just found a way to score two more points against Austin Peay. The Rick Pitino (coach)/Billy Donovan (player) Providence team went to the Final Four out of that region as a 6-seed. Just get the bad game out of the way against Austin Peay and then we could roll.
Alas, we didn't. But that was still such a great Illini team.
(12) 2012-13 Illini
Tournament seed: 7
Tournament result: lost 63-59 to 2-seed Miami in the second round
This is another team that most of you remember. But some of you are crazy young students who were somehow still in high school (or junior high?) during that season, so I'll give you the rundown.
The Bruce Weber era ended... poorly. His final team (the 2011-12 season) was ranked in mid-January and then imploded. It got.. ugly. 22nd in the polls on January 16th and then went 2-12 to finish the year. About halfway through that lose-12-of-14 streak (a home loss to Purdue mid-February), Bruce Weber melted down at a press conference and began mumbling things like "I guess this is my fault" and generally speaking like a defeated military leader accepting that it was all over. It got.. ugly.
The disbelief from the fan side was the talent we saw on the court. The team was ranked in December but then lost to UNLV at the United Center and to Missouri in St. Louis. But then a winning streak to start the Big Ten season leading to a win over #5 Ohio State when Brandon Paul put up 43 points (in the game we just refer to as "BP43"). Then... lose 12 of 14.
Weber was fired, John Groce was hired, and 2012-13 started with a bang. Like, the loudest bang Illini fans had heard since 2006. We won the Maui Invitational by taking down USC, Chaminade, and Butler. That got us ranked. Then we beat Georgia Tech in the B1G/ACC Challenge (Joe Bertrand went OFF, as I recall), and a few weeks later went to Spokane and beat #10 Gonzaga on their home floor (remember Brandon Paul doing the little "call me" motion at the end of the game?). That led to a #10 ranking and John Groce (who had just signed Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill) was suddenly a God in Champaign.
Act II for that team was a little rougher. We lost 8 of the next 11 to fall way, way out of the polls (from #10 to zero votes). A 12-0 start became 15-8, and Groce's God status started to fade.
But then, Act III. The seniors started to take over (Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tyler Griffey, and some guy using this newfangled thing called a "graduate transfer" named Sam McLaurin), the sophomores (Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu) were playing well, and after a few close calls (nearly won at Michigan State, hung with #1/2 Michigan at home for most of the game), a breakthrough: a win over #1 Indiana which included The Layup from Tyler Griffey.
That sparked a run. Won six of the next seven and worked our way into the Tournament as a 7-seed. After nearly blowing a big lead over Colorado in the first round, the second round was a matchup with 2-seed Miami. Brandon Paul played the game of his life (that DUNK), and the Illini found themselves right there at the end. Let's see if I can do this from memory.
We had a one point lead (?) with like a minute to go and Shane Larkin hit a three to put Miami up two. DJ Richardson then had a three to re-take the lead (he missed) and the rebound clearly went out of bounds off the Miami player but the officials gave the ball to Miami. We had to foul and they went up four and won. That started The Illinois Rule the next season where officials could go to the monitor inside two minutes to see who last touched the ball. You're welcome, college basketball.
Would we have won if we got the ball there? Who knows. We'd have had a shot to tie or take the lead. Instead, we came oh so close to the Sweet Sixteen before bowing out.
This post is already way too long. Especially since so many of you remember the 2013 team. So let's get to voting. Go here to vote on the winner. 5-seed 1987 vs. 12-seed 2013. May the best team win.