Illini Championship - 2005 vs. 1989

Mar 26, 2020

I swear I didn't plan for this to end on March 26th. The original plan was two posts per day so that the Sweet 16 would end last Thursday, the Elite Eight on Friday and Saturday, the Final Four on Sunday, and this game on Monday. But the recap posts for each team took too long to write, so this thing pushed out to... March 26th, the date when both teams made the Final Four.

We all knew it would come down to these two teams. I mean, we didn't know know - there was still a chance that 2001 or even 1984 could have pulled an upset - but when you put these things up to vote, honestly, nobody is getting past these two. Fans are voting, and Illini fans see a vote against 2005 or 1989 as a vote against America.

But what happens when you put them against each other? I'm excited to find out. First, two March 26ths.

March 26, 1989

I know it was a Sunday in the early afternoon. The first game of the day, I think? You could tell it was a day game because the fabric roof of the Metrodome during a day game made it look like you were in someone's kitchen with skylights. A white glow from above.

For me, I was watching at the family lake house. The lake house was split between aunts and uncles and grandparents (we put the family in family lake house) and we (my mom, dad, sister, and I) were usually in charge of going down on Easter weekend to de-winterize the place. So it was a tradition: some time in early April, with my sister and I off of school on Thursday, Friday, and Monday, we'd take five days and go get the cabin ready for the year. There was always a boat show at the lake that weekend, so that was part of the tradition as well. If you're wondering why I'm so "and then every Friday night before I go to sleep I write the Stream Of Consciousness post.." it's because that's how things were when I was growing up. On Easter, it was this:

Go to the cabin at the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. Friday was always a work day, uncovering deck furniture and scrubbing the knotty-pine walls (why, mom?) to get ready for the spring. Saturday was a trip to Tan-Tar-A Resort for the boat show. We would walk around and look at the boats - my dad always wanted a Regal - and then we would go bowling. Yes, bowling. Tan-Tar-A had bowling lanes, and it was the one time per year we went bowling. Why one time per year? Because my dad couldn't stand the smoke in bowling alleys and the bowling alley at a resort in central Missouri was the only one we knew of that didn't smell like an ash tray.

On Sunday morning, we'd go to the Passion Play put on by a local church down there. They built a stone tomb on the hillside behind their church (it's still there to this day - I drive by it when I'm down there) and would put on a surprisingly well done sunrise service with disciples racing to the tomb and everything. We'd get there early to get a good spot on the hillside above and I never saw the actor playing Jesus go into the tomb to wait for the play to start. So he had to be in there for a long time - well before sunrise. Even as a 15 year-old I wondered what his thoughts were - waiting in a dark tomb for at least an hour.

That was every Easter weekend. Clean - boat show - bowling - passion play. On Easter weekend 1989, it was clean - Illini Sweet Sixteen - boat show - bowling - passion play - Illini Elite Eight game.

That game is the first time I remember pacing. I'm sure I paced during Illini games before that, but I can remember wearing a path in the carpet that Sunday. I was probably wearing my Battle To Seattle shirt, and if the Flyin' Illini's run ended in the Elite Eight, then Kenny Battle wouldn't get to Seattle and the whole season would be lost.

When Marcus Liberty missed the front end of a one-and-one, up one with 15 seconds left, I probably collapsed. When Kendall Gill somehow got that rebound, preventing Syracuse from being able to hold for the final shot, I'm sure I passed out. I have a very specific memory of walking out the front door of the cabin and down to the lake right after they won, my head spinning with the fact that we had FINALLY made the Final Four. I was convinced we would get there in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988. We were legitimate contenders each year. So to finally get there - that was just about as relieved as I've ever felt in my life.

Probably just as much as the guy playing Jesus when he finally got to come out of the dark tomb.

March 26, 2005

Hey look at that - Easter Weekend. Easter is rarely in March, but in 1989 it was, and in 2005 it was. And yes, I looked: the next three Easters in March: 2024, 2027, and 2032.

I've told my March 26, 2005 story many times before, so if you've heard it already, just skip to the bottom and click on the poll. If not, here's how I watched the game.

First off, I was getting married in May. That Easter, well before the brackets came out, we made a plan to have a Saturday evening Easter dinner with my inlaws-to-be and my wife's extended family, some of which were meeting me for the first time. I figured I'd be fine - Illinois would either get Friday-Sunday games or, if it was Saturday, it would likely be Saturday afternoon. The schedule comes out and... Saturday night game.

So I decide to go dark. I'm not going to skip or ask to reschedule a dinner where I'm more or less the guest of honor. My only option is to turn off my phone, tape the game (like, on a videotape - what's a DVR?), and watch it when I get home.

It's been years and I can't remember the exact times, but I left the dinner very late. And it was more than an hour drive home. I avoided all radio (what if one of the St. Louis radio DJ's said "boy, did you see that Illinois game tonight?"), and I even kept my head down as I drove through neighborhoods (what if a bunch of people hung Illini flags outside and that meant we won?) in order to stay un-spoiled. I don't believe I started watching the game until after midnight.

This part I know I've written before - it's just the worst game to watch on video. To the point where I started to watch on FF (I had one of those fancy VCR's where you could fast forward while still watching) once Arizona got up 15. I just couldn't watch.

I can't exactly remember when I stopped it and started watching at regular speed. I think it was when it was 80-75. It was so impossible to wrap my brain around. You saw the comeback happen over, like, seven minutes. I saw it happen in 45 seconds as I'm fast-forwarding to just get it over with.

The rest of the game I watched as quickly as I could, fast-forwarding through the commercials and the play stoppages. Once Arizona missed their final shot to win, I rewound all the way back to down-15 and watched the whole thing at regular speed. Then I turned my phone on to see all of the voicemails (way more voicemails than texts - it was 2005). I don't think I went to sleep until 3:30, and I had to be up at dawn for church.

I took the VCR tape to my now-wife's house that morning and played the comeback for the boys (they were 8-10-12 at the time). This was their first real true exposure to Illini sports (and first real exposure to me, the "I know it's Easter Sunday but put those baskets down we'll look for eggs later check out this basketball game on tape" guy). It's just so insane that they're all in their mid-20's now and Illinois has won three NCAA Tournament games since. I promised them that March Madness would be part of their fan experience every year and they've seen three wins. And now we're finally back and we don't get Tournament games.

OK, this isn't about that. This is about the great debate. We've all discussed it before. In (most of) our lifetimes there have been two Final Four teams: 1989 and 2005. Both were ranked #1 during the season, both were seen as legitimate title contenders, both still show up on "best team that didn't win the title" lists.

But which one was better? If they matched up head-to-head, who would win? Well, that's for you to decide.

The poll is here. Think long and hard. The greatest Illini team is..........


Efremwinters84 on March 26 @ 01:47 PM CDT

PG: Deron over Bardo; SG: Gill over Dee; SF: Nick over Luther; PF: Battle over Rev; C: Augie over Lowell Bench: Tie

Therefore, the winner by a margin of 3-2 is the Flyin' Illini!

FInal Score: 110-109 in OT

Giovantischixstripz on March 26 @ 02:19 PM CDT

That just depends on how you rig the matchups. If i call Dee the pg and deron the sg (they were interchangeable) give me Dee>bardo and deron>gill, 2005 wins 3-2!

Efremwinters84 on March 26 @ 05:20 PM CDT

I can also buy that! Dee-Deron-Luther win 111-110. Two national titles sure would be nice.

Bear8287 on March 26 @ 08:45 PM CDT

I don't recall what the story was with Marcus Liberty. Was he not 100%? He started the Louisville and Syracuse games, but only played 11 minutes against Syracuse and then didn't start against Michigan and only played 5 minutes.

No bowl, no tourney on March 27 @ 12:05 PM CDT

My recollection was that Lowell had a decently sprained ankle for the Louisville game, I think (or he sprained it in it). That may have given Liberty some more playing time in that span.

No bowl, no tourney on March 27 @ 01:33 PM CDT

I looked in on the voting and I think there is a recency bias to the 2005 team. Also, the 1989 team sustained a rather major injury to one of its backcourt members who would go on to have a pretty good NBA career. Had Gill not gone down with a broken foot, who knows what their record might have been. And the Big Ten was incredibly tough that year. But when that 1989 team was clicking, nobody could beat it. In fact, nobody could even hang with them. We easily beat the eventual national champs - twice. The second time by 16 on their court.

I still marvel at the 118 points put up without an overtime against #15 Iowa that year. I'll never forget how Larry Conley described that team that year, "They're impossible to cover. They're all 6'6", they all run like deer." They hosted a ranked Florida team and beat them by 30. Again, when they were clicking, they're the best team I ever rooted for in my lifetime, outside of maybe the 1985 Bears.

rml on March 28 @ 07:24 AM CDT

Wasn't Wooden quoted as saying, shortly after they mauled Wake, that the '05 tram was the best team he had ever seen? I did think that team regressed a little as the season closed, and if we assume no injuries to either team, I'll give a slight nod to the 89 team. Aren't they also one of the few teams in history to finish a year without a losing record to any opponent? Going all from memory here, and maybe old age is sinking in.

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