Illini Bracket - 6 vs. 11
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OK, finally some interesting matchups. I don't want to show my hand here but, uh, I was pretty sure most voters would think that 2001 was a better basketball team than 1994. But these next two, the 6/11 and the 7/10, are very interesting to me. I have my opinions, but I'm curious to see what everyone else thinks.
Thinking about this, I think now is when the bracket gets really interesting. Many of the Elite Eight matchups will be pretty good, and I'm really curious what happens in this 7/10 matchup coming up next. Of course, there is the 2/15 matchup still to come with the Flyin' Illini taking on another one of the mid-90's teams so....
(6) 2002-03 Illini
Tournament seed: 4
Tournament result: lost 68-60 to 5-seed Notre Dame in the Round of 32
Maybe it's just me, but that photo up there is so strange. "Wait, Sean Harrington, Brian Cook, and... Dee Brown + James Augustine?" I know they all played together, but in my mind Harrington and Cook are part of the 2001 team and Dee and Augie are the 2005 team and they're two separate teams. Again, I get it - Dee and Augie were freshmen while Cook and Harrington were seniors - but it still doesn't click in my brain. Cook and Harrington were part of the 1999 recruiting class. Dee and Augie were seniors in 2006. They all played together? Yes - in 2002/03.
I'll start with the bad: that Notre Dame loss in the Round Of 32 is still one of the hardest tourney losses to get over. Notre Dame has one crazy hot shooting afternoon and wins a game they shouldn't have. They then turn into a pumpkin and get obliterated by Arizona in the next round. Hate hate HATE losing to the "one out of every 50 games, every shot goes down" team. Our performance at Purdue this year where we couldn't miss? That's what Notre Dame did to us that day. Felt so unfair. 13 for 24 from three. Freakin' Danny Miller.
I'm still mad about our seed, too. I don't think I've ever hated a bracket as much as that one. We were #11 in the polls and had just won the Big Ten Tournament, so a four-seed felt like an insult. Especially with Xavier and Syracuse getting 3-seeds. Although, to be fair, I was all "there's no WAY Syracuse deserves that 3-seed over us"... and then Syracuse won the national title.
Here's my recollection of that team. After 2001 we lost Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin and then after 2002 we lost Frankie Williams, Cory Bradford, Robert Archibald, Lucas Johnson, and Damir Krupalija. Lucas had missed most of 2002 with a knee injury, so I looked at it as losing Sergio, Marcus, and Lucas after 2001 and losing Frankie, Cory, Arch, and Damir after 2002. The only two players remaining from that Elite Eight team in 2001: Brian Cook and Sean Harrington. Well, I guess Nick Smith was redshirting in 2001 so he counts as "remaining", but you get my point.
So 2002-03 was a youth movement. Two seniors providing stability to an overhauled roster (Cook in the starting lineup, Harrington off the bench), two sophomores working their way into the rotation (Luther and Roger), and three freshmen starting (Dee, Deron, and Augie). And then the 8-9-10 guys on the bench were Nick Smith, juco Blandon Ferguson, and Dee-Deron-Augie classmate Aaron Spears.
It's such an interesting roster to see on paper. Especially if that paper doesn't list the years. "Wait, Dee-Deron-Luther-Roger-Augie PLUS Brian Cook? Did this team ever lose a game?" (They did.)
I don't think I can finish this post without getting angry about Notre Dame again. I should just lean into it. Hold on a second.
OK, I'm now listening to Disturbed. Yes, really. Shuffling all their albums. Current song: Stricken. Let's do this.
The team was unranked before the season. Despite back-to-back Big Ten titles, there just wasn't enough returning for the pollsters to rank that team. Three freshmen would be starting.
Then they come out of the gates on fire. We knock off top-10 North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. We beat Missouri in St. Louis (they were... looking it up... ranked 11th at the time). Unranked before the season, by Christmas we're #7. I can tell you this: after that Missouri win, every Illini fan on earth felt absolutely indestructible. It's the rebuilding year and we're #7 again because our top-10 class might have been the best recruiting class in the country. And we just signed the McBride/Randle class. I remember being all "will we ever fall out of the top ten ever again"?
The conference season then began with a bit of a struggle. Basically, with a young team, we really struggled to win on the road. We were unbeaten at home in league play but lost games at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, and Purdue. That meant we'd go to Madison in March with the Big Ten title on the line. I wrote about this recently: Wisconsin won it with a free throw in the final seconds (LET THEM PLAY) and Illinois lost out on a three-peat by one game. I was stupefied.
But that's OK. We rolled through the Big Ten Tournament and won the thing. So that December feeling came back. We were #11 in the polls and headed for a 3-seed. That became a 4-seed (the Big Ten was down that year and only sent five teams to the dance), and the first round matchup was a very plucky Western Kentucky team. We got past them in a close game (I was down with the sickness so I watched it from bed) and then, you know, Notre Dame.
I already kind of covered that game above so I can just skip this part, right? I can't. OK, but this won't be fun.
Danny Ferry hit everything he threw up there. So did some other guy whose name I don't want to look up right now. Thirteen for twenty four from three and they won. It wasn't even a game you could explain away with "well, Illinois DID have three freshman starters...". It was just luck. They hit way above their average in one of those one-in-50 games and we lost. I hate them. I'm not usually the vengeful one but... AH AH AH AH I hate that game.
I really wanted a piece of Arizona that year. They barely got past their second-round game (overtime win over Gonzaga), and I think we could have taken them out. Notre Dame certainly couldn't.
Still so mad.
(11) 1992-93 Illini
Tournament seed: 6
Tournament result: lost 85-68 to 3-seed Vanderbilt in the Round Of 32
This season, on the other hand, still brings me great joy. It's funny - two NCAA Tournaments that ended in the Round Of 32 with another team shooting lights out, but this one brings me happy memories and 2003 brings me angry memories. I'm weird.
I'll start at the end with this one as well. The Round Of 32 loss to Vanderbilt. This was a Vandy team we had already beaten that year in the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving. So there was some confidence going in. But then Vandy shot 57% for the game and ran us out of the gym. It was Richard Keene's worst game as an Illini - 1 for 11 from three in a game where the opponent was shooting lights out. Vandy had two guys hit four threes (McCaffery and McMahan) and the way I remember it, they jumped out to a double digit lead and we never got close.
It's weird how I perceive these games.
1993 - "That was a good Vandy team, and when they were playing like that, we had no shot. Billy McCaffery could really shoot it."
2003 - "I can't believe we lost to that Notre Dame team. They have one lucky game where they hit every three and they beat us. Danny Ferry got so lucky."
Vandy would lose to Temple in the next round, and Temple would lose to the Fab Five in the Elite Eight. Except, wait, no they didn't. Michigan vacated that season. Congrats, Temple, on the Final Four.
OK, so let's talk about that season. The drought felt like forever. 1991 we were banned from postseason play, and 1992 was the 13-15 year, Henson's worst since he started. Recruiting was limited to on-campus only, there were only two scholarships available per class - things were dire. A two-year Tournament hiatus felt like a decade. Especially to sophomore year-me who had gone to Illinois expecting at least a 3-seed every season.
But 1992-93 was the team where Lou Henson started to put things back together. I saw that year as a three-man team, and those three men led us back to the Tournament. Rennie Clemons at point guard, Andy Kaufmann shooting the ball every time he touched it, and Deon Thomas starting to blossom inside.
The weird thing about that season was how Andy Kaufmann coming back from academic suspension meant that Tommy Michael disappeared. In fact, I still remember the poster for the 1992-93 season which featured Deon and Tommy and said something like "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside". That was based on the previous season (1991-92) where Thomas and Michael were the leading scorers. Kaufman returns and Michael's scoring average drops from 12.5 ppg to 4.1. Michael still shot 40% from three that 1993 season. Still feels like we didn't use him properly.
Such a strange career for Andy Kaufmann. 21.3 points per game as a sophomore in 1991 during the season where we would have been in the Tournament but were banned from postseason play. Then he misses an entire season for academics. Then he returns and puts up 17.3 points per game. Hold on a moment because I need to see how many shots he took.
433 shots on the season. That's actually not as many as I remembered. Ayo put up 405 shots this season, so it wasn't far off from that. Man, my brain has inflated "Andy Kaufmann, chucker" over the years.
The game you might remember from 1993 is the Iowa game. The ending was incredible, but you have to know the setup.
The reason for the probation and the drop-off of Illini basketball? The Bruce Pearl/Deon Thomas investigation in 1990. Pearl left Iowa in 1992, so when Iowa came to town in 1993, it was... I'll just say that there was a lot of hate. Especially with Deon Thomas on the court, a constant reminder of the whole ordeal.
The thing you remember: Kaufmann hitting the shot. The thing you forgot: Deon Thomas scoring Iowa's go-ahead basket just before the shot. Iowa missed a shot, Thomas is batting for the rebound (with Acie Earl, I believe? I don't want to look it up I'm on a roll), and the ball goes off Thomas' upper arm, bounces up in the air, and through the hoop. An unintentional own goal.
We all feared the headlines in every Iowa paper the next day. "Bruce Pearl gets his wish - Thomas scores the winning basket for Iowa". But we didn't have to endure them. TJ Wheeler throws a three-quarter court pass, Andy Kauffman snags it, turns, and nails the three at the buzzer for the win. I can still picture Steve Roth running across the court for the dogpile.
It felt so, so good. I can't really describe what "beat Iowa to put ourselves squarely in the Tournament" meant at the time. It was massive. I believe there are five famous Illini shots in my lifetime, and that's one of them:
- Eddie Johnson to beat #1 MSU
- Nick Anderson to beat Indiana
- Andy Kaufmann to beat Iowa
- Deron Williams to tie Arizona
- Tyler Griffey to beat #1 Indiana
There are others that just miss - Frankie at Minnesota to clinch the Big Ten title, Luther put-back at Purdue to clinch another Big Ten title - but to me, those are the Big Five.
What am I even talking about right now? Listing the top-5 shots? This is supposed to be a post summarizing both teams and here I am, more than five hours in, writing about big shots. I need, like, a boss looking over my shoulder telling me "uh, just give me the team reports, please".
I'll stop. Go vote here. 6 vs. 11 in a sneaky matchup. What if one team gets hot from the field?