Illinois was coming off a strong basketball season in 2004, having finished second to Wisconsin in the Big Ten race and then making the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The 2005 Illinois basketball team was poised for more right from the outset.
Bruce Weber’s team was backcourt-oriented, with a dynamic trio of Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams. The conference MVP award would ultimately go to Brown while Williams is still enjoying an excellent pro career, but Head was a very big part of the offense, as we’ll soon see.
Roger Powell was a gritty forward and James Augustine was at center. Illinois opened the season ranked fifth in the nation and were favorites to win the Big Ten. They validated that on December 1 when they beat top-ranked Wake Forest 91-73 and moved to the top of the polls. Subsequent non-conference wins included Arkansas, Georgetown, Oregon and the traditional neutral-site rivalry game with Missouri. On New Year’s Eve, Weber’s team put one more impressive non-conference scalp on its resume, beating #22 Cincinnati 67-45.
The Big Ten season started just as impressively with a 19-point home win over Ohio State. Conference play included narrow escapes, like a 73-68 overtime survival at home against Iowa, and it included impressive road triumphs, like beating Wisconsin by ten and Michigan State by thirteen.
Illinois ran away with the conference championship and entered the season finale at Ohio State with a perfect record and had fans dreaming of the idea of matching archrival Indiana’s achievement back in 1976, the last team to run the table and win the NCAA title. If nothing else, they could match UNLV’s 1991 team and have an unbeaten year, even if the ’91 Rebs lost in the Final Four.
But Ohio State played the finale like a team on a mission. In fact, they were. The Buckeyes at 19-12 coming into the game were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to recruiting violations and they were openly treating this chance to spoil Illinois’ perfect run as their own postseason. The Illini still led 64-62 on the final possession when Ohio State went for the win and hit a trey in the closing seconds to steal a 65-64 win.
The chance at history might have been lost, but Illinois showed its resilience in winning the conference tournament, including an 11-point win over Wisconsin that closed a three-game sweep of the previous year’s champs.
Illinois was the #1 seed in the Midwest and the travel schedule was friendly. A commonly noted story at the time was that the Illini could win a national championship without ever getting on a plane. The first two rounds would be in Indianapolis, the regionals would be at a home-neutral environment in Chicago and the 2005 Final Four was in St. Louis.
Regardless of where Weber’s team played the first two games, they weren’t going to lose, as easy wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Nevada sent them on to Chicago to play for their first Final Four trip since 1989.
The Big Ten was vindicating itself quite well, making Illinois’ near-perfect season look even more impressive. While Iowa and Minnesota lost in the first round and Ohio State had to be home, both Wisconsin and Michigan State pushed through to the regionals and while those two teams were not favorites, seeded sixth and fifth respectively, the league had a chance for three Final Four teams.
Illinois got a bracket break for the Sweet 16 in drawing #12 seed UW-Milwaukee. The Panthers had beaten Boston College and Alabama and were just happy to be there—they are also where this writer got his degree from and my lack of interest in the basketball team is mostly mirrored by the rest of the student body and the city in general. Meaning that even though Milwaukee people could have easily traveled to the game and created a counterweight to the Illinois fans, UWM didn’t have the fan base to make it happen, and didn’t have the personnel in either case. Brown and Williams each scored 21 points and the team shot 48 percent, more than enough to offset a big Panther edge on the glass and Illinois won 77-63.
The regional final was against Arizona, who’d survived a thrilling 79-78 game over Oklahoma State. With Illinois having both the better team and the de facto homecourt, there wasn’t a lot expected of this game. Instead it proved to be perhaps the most memorable regional final of a weekend that was full of them.
Illinois trailed by 15 points with four minutes to go. But Arizona began turning the ball over and Illinois, who would try an astonishing 35 three-point shots in this game started connecting. Williams and Head combined to shoot 10-for-21 from behind the arc. Even though Illinois allowed their opponent to hit 52 percent from the floor and to win the rebounding battle, the three-pointers were the equalizer and they rallied and forced overtime.
With some of us expecting Illinois to cruise in overtime, Arizona recovered itself, but now the Illini wouldn’t be denied. They held Salim Stoudamire, a hero of the Okie State win, to 1-for-7 from behind the arc and Arizona couldn’t win scoring by twos. The final was 90-89 and Illinois had given their fans a win that should be considered the favorite in the Greatest NCAA Comeback Ever debate, and has to be in any discussion of Greatest NCAA Tournament Game Ever Played.
Michigan State pushed through the South Regional and made the Final Four, upending favorites Duke and Kentucky. Wisconsin nearly made it through the East, reaching the final and then giving North Carolina all it could handle. For Illinois, more than conference pride was lost when the Badgers were beaten—UNC was seen as the one team who could beat the Illini. Indeed, North Carolina and Illinois were considered head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country and were on opposite sides of the bracket to create a possible Monday Night showdown.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
Illinois drew Louisville and Rick Pitino and played its best game of the tournament in Saturday’s early semifinal. News was rippling through the stands that Pope John Paul II had passed away in Rome that day—I can still vividly remember watching television and seeing the pilgrims praying for the pontiff. I looked out the window at the ethnic Polish parish I lived across the street from in Pittsburgh at the time and almost feeling a little guilty about wanting to go watch the Final Four. Then I remembered how much the late pope had loved sports in his native Poland and his optimistic outlook on both life and death. So I headed down to the Irish Catholic club that was having a get-together for the games.
I also needed Louisville to win the national championship and win my bracket pool for the first time ever, but that was one area no miracle was forthcoming. Head bagged six three-pointers, Powell scored 20 and with 11 rebounds from James Augustine, Illinois enjoyed a glass advantage that was as decisive as it was rare. A 31-28 lead at halftime turned into a decisive 72-57 win. North Carolina played a similar game—tight first half, followed by a strong second half and gave the nation the championship game it wanted.
It took Illinois into the second half to get into the flow though, as UNC built up a 40-27 halftime lead. The Illini had no answer for Sean May, the burly interior presence who had 26 points and 10 rebounds, but Powell fought hard and grabbed 14 boards of his own, enabling Illinois to get a surprising 37-34 rebounding edge. But when you live by the three, you die by it. While Head hit five more treys and the team hit 12, it was done efficiently. The backcourt trio was 10-for-34 from behind the arc, the team overall was 12-for-40 and though Illinois eventually pulled even, UNC survived 75-70.
The 2005 Illinois basketball team might have come up a couple possessions short of a national championship, but they were the best team the school has ever produced.