Illini Bracket - 3 vs. 14
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For some reason, not a lot of 3-14 upsets come to mind. Duke losing to Mercer is really the only 3-14 that immediately pops into my brain. I can think of most of the 2-15 upsets (including the Duke one!) but I can't remember many 3-14's. This would have totally been a year for a 3-14 upset. And we would have totally been the 6-seed across from that matchup.
Right to it. 2001 vs. 1994.
(3) 2000-01 Illini
Tournament seed: 1
Tournament result: lost 87-81 to 2-seed Arizona in the Elite Eight
This is the third time I'm writing about the 2000-01 Illini. I had this browser thing happening yesterday where if you would click on a tab - like, say I have another tab open to look up the score of that Arizona Elite Eight game - and when you come back to your original tab, it refreshes the page. There's no auto-save when writing directly within the IlliniBoard admin page, and if I hadn't saved my work, poof, it's gone with the refresh.
I closed Chrome and re-opened and it went away, and I only lost a few paragraphs, so I kept going. And I got near the end of writing about 2001 and then it happened again and I lost all my writing. Don't go to bed angry? I went to bed angry.
This time I restarted the laptop. This will so very obviously fix the bug and I won't have to worry about it anymore. (Also, some online forum said that this one-time bug could be fixed with a full restart and those never lie.) So, we're good! Nothing to worry about. I definitely won't get to the end of this post and have to start over.
(Yes, I realize that I could write in a program that auto-saves every ten seconds like Google Docs or something and then cut and paste over here but that's usually a formatting nightmare because the bold and italics don't come across and I've never had this problem before in the last three years so lets just assume that the Chrome bug is fixed and I don't have to change.)
The 2001 Illini team. This was a team where everything fell into place. Like, everything:
- The new coach (Bill Self) arrived from Tulsa and was immediately a superstar.
- The frontcourt players on the roster (Marcus Griffin, Brian Cook, Robert Archibald, Lucas Johnson, Damir Krupalija) were just the perfect fit for what Self wanted to do.
- Frank Williams entered his second season and made The Leap, ending the season as the Big Ten Player of the Year.
- There was this perfect roster mix of seniors (Marcus Griffin, Sergio McClain), juniors ready to break out (Robert Archibald, Lucas Johnson, and Damir Krupalija), and sophomores making the leap (Frank Williams, Brian Cook).
- And then there's the shooters. Need a three? There's former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Cory Bradford entering his junior year and sophomore Sean Harrington coming off the bench.
The point: this was probably the deepest Illini team of my lifetime. I know that I just covered the 1987 team, and that team had those seniors (Norman, Altenberger, Wysinger) combined with the stars of the future (Gill, Bardo), but that was a "play the freshmen sparingly" team. The 2001 team was a rotation of nine guys who all got regular minutes. And all nine scored at least 5 points per game (well, Damir was 9th at 4.8 ppg). I'll put that into context.
The 2020 team had six guys who scored at least 4.8 ppg (Ayo, Trent, Andres, Kofi, Giorgi, Alan). The ninth guy (Hamlin) scored 0.9 ppg.
The 2010 team had five guys who scored at least 4.8 ppg (McCamey, Davis, Richardson, Tisdale, Paul). The ninth guy (Jeff Jordan) scored 1.6 ppg.
And the 2001 team had NINE guys who scored at least 4.8 ppg (Williams, Griffin, Cook, Bradford, McClain, Archibald, Harrington, Johnson, Krupalija). That's depth.
Because of that depth, the team was a top-10 team nearly the entire season. Their lowest spot in the polls was #11 after a loss at Iowa in early January. And that meant crazy, insane, college-basketball-game-of-the-month matchups like Michigan State in Champaign in early February. #4 Michigan State coming to Champaign to play #7 Illinois. Not just #4 Michigan State, defending National Champions Michigan State. You kids think the State Farm Center was electric for, say, #23 Illinois vs. #18 Iowa? Imagine #7 Illinois beating #4 Michigan State in the featured game on ESPN on a Tuesday night. There's loud, and then there's Cory Bradford's sixth three of the game to put away #4 Michigan State loud. All future Illini games will be measured against this decibel.
That was the only matchup between the two that season, and it allowed us to share the Big Ten title with the defending champions. A bad overtime loss at Penn State cost us the outright title, but that's OK. We tied for it, and we won the only one-on-one matchup.
I remember being shocked on Selection Sunday that we held on to the 1-seed. We had lost to Indiana in the BTT semifinals, and most pundits thought that this meant we'd lose our #1 seed to Arizona. We didn't lose it - we got the 1-seed... and Arizona got the 2-seed in our region.
After that it felt inevitable. Even if the seeds were flipped (Arizona the 1, us the 2), it felt like we were going to meet up in the Elite Eight for Round Three. Why Round Three? Because we had already played Arizona twice during the regular season. Yes, a third matchup against a Pac-10 team in the same season.
The first matchup was in the Maui Invitational final. We were #8, Arizona was #1. We were down most of the game and Sean Harrington almost shot us back into it, losing by three. Then we played them in a previously scheduled matchup in the United Center and won. Then round three was inevitable in the Elite Eight.
It felt so inevitable that I wasn't even nervous in the Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas (and I'm always nervous). My friend Dave was staying with me (he had a teacher conference in St. Louis that day) and we watched the game together. As Kansas made a run in the second half he gave me the "you're still not nervous?" and I surprised myself by saying "nah, we have Frankie". Sure enough, Frank took over and we beat Kansas by 16. I don't even need to look it up - we won 80-64.
That set up the inevitable matchup in the Elite Eight. Lute Olsen spent every press conference before the game talking about how Illinois would foul on every possession and how his players would have no space and foul foul foul they foul. It was brilliant, because it worked. The officials did not call a "let them play" game as they usually do in the NCAA Tournament. They called everything.
The stat you'll hear from that game is that six Illini players fouled out, and yes, that's alarming, but a lot of those foul-outs happened in the final two minutes as we were intentionally fouling to put them on the line. It was still a travesty - it's just that the "six Illini players fouled out" wasn't some, you know, James Augustine in the national championship game thing where the fouls meant these guys only played 11 minutes.
The stat of that game is simple: 36 fouls called on Illinois, sending Arizona to the line 56 times. Fifty-six free throws. 56. Again, brilliant move by Lute Olson to get in the officials heads. Seriously brilliant. He knew he would lose if officials called the game like they called it in Chicago in December. So he found a way to play the game on his team's terms. Savvy.
(And also why 2005 felt so good.)
(14) 1993-94 Illini
Tournament seed: 8
Tournament result: lost 84-77 to 9-seed Georgetown in the first round
OK, finally one of the teams from when I was in school. I know a lot about a lot of Illini teams, but I feel like I know everything about these teams.
93-94. I was in Krush with my friend Scott. I believe this was the year Orange Crush changed to Orange Krush and stopped using the soda logo. Krush seats were chosen by seniority at the time, and you could get two seats based on your seniority, so he and I got the top row, all the way to the right, in the corner section. The selections were made in Foellinger Hall, so you sat their until they called your name (number?) and then went up with whoever you were sitting with. We (he) picked what we believed to be the single best seats in Krush. As close to center court as you could be and high enough to see over the benches in front of you. We were amazed that everyone was choosing the front rows. We were AA13, Row 6, seats 1 and 2.
I probably know more about this season than any other Illini season in the past. (I mean, I remember more about the 2020 season than the 1994 season, but if we go back 10+ years, it's going to be 1994.) The main reason is that all of the ticket stubs are all around me right now. See, I'm that guy who would save every ticket stub and write the score of the game on the stub. So just to the left of my laptop, under the glass top of this desk, taped to the desk underneath, is a stub that says "Game 13 - Sun, Jan 30, 1994 Time TBA Illinois vs. Indiana". It also has "W - 88-81" written on it. So if you ever ask me about the 1994 season and I ramble off "yeah I remember that we beat Indiana 88-81", it's not that I remember remember - I just see the ticket stub all the time.
Not to take it down a notch, but this was also the year that my dad died. Day after Thanksgiving. If you've ever had to go through something like that, there's fuzzy memories around the weeks after it happened (numb), but very clear memories of the week it happened and the weeks after the numbness wears off. I can remember that LaSalle game - my first day back on campus after the funeral, and I decided I needed normalcy so I went to the game - like it was yesterday. Jerry Hester scored... 18 I think? Maybe 20?
I also remember the Illini Classic a few weeks later. We're playing Morehead State and all of the American players (they got to play Illinois the next night) were in awe of Deon Thomas. They were sitting in front of us on the floor and high-fiving at every Deon post move.
And of course I remember the Missouri game. My dad and I had tickets, my mom decided we should go with her sitting in his seat, three overtimes, a loss, I broke down in tears in the stairwell of the old St. Louis Arena, and a bunch of Missouri fans stood over me laughing and pointing. I'll hate that program until the day I die.
That season was so incredibly up and down. It just needed a few more pieces to be great. I mean, you had the leading scorer of all time (Deon Thomas) as a senior and the second-leading scorer of all time (Kiwane Garris) as a freshman. The one team that had both of them on the roster and we just couldn't find a way to put something together. You had TJ Wheeler and Tommy Michael as seniors, you had McDonald's All American Richard Keene as a sophomore, you had Kiwane scoring 17 ppg and Deon scoring 20 ppg. But still, something was missing.
I remember the loss at Wisconsin (that was the Michael Finley/Rashard Griffith/Tracy Webster Wisconsin team) being infuriating. At the time, Wisconsin was on a 47-year streak without making the NCAA Tournament, so a loss to Wisconsin was like losing to Northwestern. As I've written before, because Wisconsin made the Tournament in 1994, I always tied it to my dad's lifetime (he was 48 when he died). Wisconsin made the Tournament only once during his lifetime, and it was when he was an infant. That loss in early 1994 would have bothered him immensely. Not to mention what it would be like if he could see what's happened since.
That season was up and down, up and down. I started to get worried about even making the Tournament, but then a win at #20 Minnesota in early March kind of sealed it up. We got an 8-seed, paired with 9-seed Georgetown, staring down a matchup with eventual champion Arkansas in the second round.
We lost to Georgetown 84-77 and if I'm honest, that loss probably bothers me less than any Tournament loss in my lifetime. 40 Minutes Of Hell Arkansas was so good and we were so up and down that I had already conceded the second round matchup. So that 8/9 game with Georgetown just felt like competing to see who would get fed to Arkansas. Georgetown won, and Georgetown was eaten by Arkansas in the second round.
Then my focus turned to Missouri losing. Missouri got on a roll after beating us in three overtimes and ended up a one-seed. Those guys standing over me saying "cry away you little Illini baby" could NOT celebrate a Final Four. Honestly, I probably cared more about Missouri losing than Illinois winning in that Tournament. As I recall, Paul O'Liney went something like 1 for 12 from three and they got blown out by Arizona in the Elite Eight. Hopefully those Missouri fans cried.
All in all, that 1994 Illini team never really clicked. But they had so much potential. Deon and Kiwane on the same team. Man, what could have been if there were just a few more pieces. (I'm really selling this matchup, aren't I?)
OK, so time to vote. 2001 vs. 1994. Go vote here.