Illini Bracket - 7 vs. 10
This is the first one (and only one) where I'm going to have to do some deep research. All of these others I look up the roster and the schedule and talk about what I remember - for 1981 I'm going to have to dig a little deeper. I have a few specific memories (I was 8-9 years old at the time), but they're just centered around my Dad's stories about the Braggin' Rights game and newspaper articles I read in the St. Louis Globe Democrat. I know the names, and I remember some of the younger players once they got older, but the season - no real specific memories.
Let's just get into it.
(7) 1980-81 Illini
Tournament seed: 4
Tournament result: lost 57-52 to 8-seed Kansas State in the Sweet 16
The first thing that sticks out after all of this research - that had to be such a massive letdown loss. Similar to the loss to Chattanooga in 1997. You look at the bracket, you're afraid of a matchup, and the a lower seed takes out that scary matchup the round before and suddenly you're the favorite. In 1997 it was 3-seed Georgia losing to 14-seed Chattanooga, so suddenly 6-seed Illinois is the favorite to reach the Sweet 16. In 1981, it was a matchup with 1-seed Oregon State which Illini fans likely feared, and then 8-seed Kansas State takes them out and suddenly it's 4-seed Illinois against 8-seed Kansas State with a chance to go to the Elite Eight.
And no, before you do the math, Lon Kruger finished his playing career at K-State in 1974 and Brad Underwood didn't start his playing career at K-State until 1984. So neither one was on that team. It was the Rolando Blackman Kansas State team (I still hate the The Ayo Dosunmu Illinois Team never got to show what it could do in the Tournament), and they were coached by Jack Hartman. Hartman is kind of an important figure in Illini basketball, having been both Lon Kruger and Brad Underwood's coach and mentor. As I recall, both mentioned him in their introductory press conferences in Champaign.
I guess I've gotten ahead of myself here, talking about how the season ended in the Sweet 16. I should talk about the Henson rebuild because I've studied it before for another post. I'll try to keep this short.
Henson arrives in 1975 to take over a struggling program in Champaign. Gene Bartow had been the coach for only one year, going 8-18, and then he shipped off to UCLA. So Lou is taking over a program that hasn't been successful for a long time (no NCAA Tournament since 1963) AND was dealing with a coach who just left after one year. The rebuild is slow - 14-13, 16-14, 13-14 his first three seasons - and then a breakthrough in 1978-79. The team climbs all the way to #4 in the polls which led to a matchup with #1 Michigan State (and Magic Johnson) in Champaign. Biggest game in Champaign in... multiple decades? Illinois wins on a last-second shot from Eddie Johnson and my dad had to be thinking that we might win an NCAA title or something. 15-0 and just beat the #1 team? At least a Final Four, right?
Nope. A 15-0 start was followed by a 4-11 finish. Man, imagine that season in the Twitter world. 15-0 and #4 in the polls and then you miss the NCAA Tournament. The following season was another step forward (made the NIT, got to Madison Square Garden, lost in the semis but won the third-place game), and then, finally, in 1980-81, a breakthrough. A trip to the Sweet 16.
And that was led by two seniors who had been part of gradual climb (Eddie Johnson and Mark Smith) (no, not that Mark Smith - the Peoria one), one junior college transfer (Craig Tucker), and a superstar freshman recruit (Derek Harper). There were other key parts - I remember my dad talking about Perry Range - but I don't know enough about Perry Range or Derek Holcomb to do them much justice here. My childhood brain remembers four players: Johnson, Smith, Tucker, and Harper.
As I'm typing this out, I'm realizing that the Kansas State Sweet 16 game would be fun for Dallas Mavericks fans to watch. Their backcourt for, like, a decade was Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper. And this was a Tournament game featuring both of them.
Back to the season. That team put themselves on the map (and into the polls) with a win in the first-ever Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis. Blew the Tigers out, really - 84-62. Missouri fell out of the polls and Illinois hopped in. Illinois stayed ranked most of the season, finished third in the Big Ten, and grabbed a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. I don't remember it, but I imagine the March home game against Indiana was a really big deal. That was the Isiah Thomas team that won the national title, and they came to Champaign ranked 14th to take on #16 Illinois. Indiana won 69-66, and looking at Indiana's schedule that year, it was their only close game in March. They won their final ten games on their way to the title, and nine of them were by double digits (including the title game over James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and the Tarheels). The only exception was the 3-point win over Illinois. I'd love to hear some stories from that game.
Looking at that team on paper is kind of like looking at the 2003 team (Brian Cook AND Deron Williams?). Eddie Johnson as a senior plus Derek Harper as a freshman. Both would go on to long careers in the NBA, and with two NBA guys on the same team, man, I'm guessing that K-State loss in the Sweet Sixteen really stung.
That's actually a really good matchup for...
(10) 2008-09 Illini
Tournament seed: 5
Tournament result: lost 76-72 to 12-seed Western Kentucky in the First Round
Chester Frazier should have been Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
I considered just making that my breakdown for the entire season. Just write that sentence and hit "publish". No postseason award has ever bothered me more than Travis Walton of Michigan State winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year over Chester Frazier. There's going to be some sports trivia contest some day, and there will be an impossible tiebreaker question at the end, and that question will be "who won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009?" and I will be able to answer "Travis Walton" immediately because it still bothers me to this day.
And, really, that encapsulates that entire season. How did that team get a five seed? Chester Frazier's defense. Why did that team lose to 12-seed Western Kentucky in the first round? Chester broke his hand and missed the game. What was that team's playing style? Put Chet on the other team's best player and then try to grind out points with McCamey, Davis, Tisdale, and Meacham.
In fact, wasn't that the season where Bruce Weber uttered his "we haven't even coached the offense yet - we're going to win with defense so that's what we've been working on" quote? That's my memory of that season, anyway. McCamey would show flashes, Trent would hit some threes, Mike Davis emerged out of nowhere as a legitimate offensive threat, and Chet would lock down the other team's best player.
There's probably no Illini player I've ever defended more than Chester Frazier. Even as far back as 2006 on the old version of IlliniBoard. I simply ask that every player gives great effort and maxes out their talent, and I can't think of a player that got more out of their talent than Chester Frazier. Name a player the last 20 years who played harder. You can't. Yes, Andres Feliz is my guy, and if I type his name in my phone it autocorrects to FELIZ after a lot of all-caps texting to friends, but still, Chet holds the title. No one played harder than Chet.
If you're too young to remember that season and are wondering why I think so fondly of a team that lost to a 12 as a 5, it was, in my mind, 94% on Chet's broken hand. He missed the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament and we didn't even look like the same team. Just among my group of friends, I'd say 70% expected to lose to Western Kentucky after our BTT performance against Purdue without Chester.
There was some hope that week that he might play (my list of Illini players who would play through injury without flinching: 1. Chester Fraizer 2. nobody comes close), but you can't play basketball with broken bones in your hand. Chet didn't play, Western Kentucky controlled the game, Billy Cole tried to shoot us back in it with a few late threes, but it was not to be. I would have loved to see what that team (with Chet) could have done against Gonzaga in the second round, but... ugh.
For the purposes of this bracket, though, Chet is healthy. All teams are assumed healthy. So when you make your choice here, consider Chet guarding Derek Harper (and maybe even Eddie Johnson). Consider that Mike Davis was second team All Big Ten that season. McCamey, by the end of the year, just starting to round into his (first team All Big Ten) junior year form.
This is a "tied with a minute to go" matchup in my mind. Really curious to see who everyone picks.
Voting can be done here.