Illinois basketball has come a long way since 2005


When you’re young, you rarely think long-term.

I grew up in a golden era of Illinois basketball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Big Ten titles and NCAA tournament appearances were the norm. I didn’t associate Illinois basketball with anything other than success, since it had been good for as long as I’d been old enough to follow the game.

I was 11 when Illinois basketball made it to the national championship in 2005. As a fifth-grader, I got to witness the winningest Illini basketball team in history, as Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Roger Powell, James Augustine and the rest of that stacked team took the Illini team to a 37-2 record and to new heights.

I lived and died with that team. Growing up in Champaign, I had a front row seat for the hysteria that envelops a community when a group of college kids turns the school down the street into a basketball powerhouse.

I was lucky enough to experience the Final Four in St. Louis as one of 47,000 who watched when Illinois defeated Louisville in the national semifinal, then stumbled just short of the pinnacle of college basketball when it lost to North Carolina in the national title game. After the loss, I couldn’t process the magnitude of what I witnessed.

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When the confetti rained in St. Louis and the Tar Heels celebrated, my 11-year-old brain tried to rationalize the situation. I was convinced the Illini would be back on this stage soon. Why wouldn’t they be? I already knew that the Final Four the following year would be in Indianapolis, which is even closer to Champaign than St. Louis is! I’d be back at the Final Four next year, I thought, only next time Illinois would cut down the nets.

The loss wasn’t that big of a deal. The Illini would be good forever.

But Illinois did not make the 2006 Final Four. Rather, in the 10 years since the ’04-’05 season, the Illini have had six NCAA tournament appearances and just three NCAA tournament wins. A decade removed from claiming one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled, this Illinois program, which was arguably elite at the turn of the century, has lost its national relevancy.

My immediate thoughts following the national championship were childish and short-sighted, to be sure. Even the best programs rarely make it to the Final Four year after year. Illinois has made it just twice since 1952. But even as an 11-year-old with little knowledge of the intricacies of college basketball beyond what I saw on the court, my notions had some merit behind them.

The recent fate of Illinois basketball makes one wonder: Why did the Illini fall off the mountain after nearly reaching the summit, and why couldn’t they build off unprecedented success?

Incompetence from a coaching and recruiting perspective definitely played a huge role. Bruce Weber could coach great talent, but could not sustain a high-level program. He had bad luck along the way, as well. Eric Gordon flip-flopped, Jamar Smith threw away a promising career and Jereme Richmond was a knucklehead.

But much like his offense’s infamous shot-clock draining possessions sapped any and all momentum, Weber’s downfall was his inability to gain any traction from year-to-year. After 2007, NCAA tournament berths became an every-other-year occurrence.

That’s not enough for a hungry fan base like Illinois’ — so often starved by disappointing football seasons. The fans want to win so bad that they take to Twitter to attempt to steer star recruits toward their beloved program.

John Groce took over at Illinois after Weber was fired in 2012, and he’s given fans some reason to believe in a return to glory. His charismatic approach and insatiable recruiting appetite has been encouraging, but the on-court results have been inconsistent in his three years in charge.

Groce sees the potential in this school and fan-base. “Why not Illinois?” he asked in his introductory press conference, wondering why Illinois basketball  is a national afterthought, while our Big Ten peers consistently win, re-tool and repeat.

If Groce gets Illinois back to the Final Four, just imagine the mayhem that would ensue.

To see it unfold in 2005 was something special. Even off-campus, Champaign street corners had makeshift kiosks where Final Four shirts flew off the shelves. The Alma Mater statue was draped in an oversized basketball jersey and 25,000 fans showed up at Memorial Stadium for the second-place celebration. Bill Freaking Murray was their honorary bandwagon fan.

Just imagine if, no, when the Illini make it back.  

Then fans can all cheer like 11-year-olds again.

Alex is a junior in AHS.     

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