Marching up the Mountain

As March once again comes roaring in and college basketball is ramping up to its most prestigious event, I’m saddened to not see the University of Illinois in the thick of things. Unfortunately, this year’s team was saddled by injuries, suspensions and off-the-court shenanigans. Here’s to next year’s team―may they be healthy, strong, and make good choices.

College basketball is a series of cycles. Sometimes you’re riding high for a few years and sometimes you’re on the downward slope hoping to head back up the mountain of greatness. New Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman talks about climbing that mountain:

When faced with climbing the biggest mountains, I know only one approach to take: look not up, because the size of the task might be daunting, but instead look down and focus on placing one foot in front of the next, trusting that you will reach your destination by concentrating on each small step to get there. In that way — with steady, tough progress — we will reach the mountaintop.

As I think about that mountain I’m reminded of the peak of Illinois basketball success: The 2005 Regional Final. You might think the National Championship game was the top, but you’d be wrong. The moment Illinois basketball fans remember is the Arizona game, not the loss to the cheating North Carolina Tar Heels.

All year, Illinois was the best team in college basketball. Led by a trio of talented guards in Dee Brown, Luther Head, and future NBA All-Star Deron Williams and mobile and athletic power forwards Roger Powell, Jr. and James Augustine, the Illinois basketball team was not just the talk of the town or state, but of the nation.

That’s the Sports Illustrated cover image.

See all these college kids popping their jersey? That was started by Dee Brown telling everyone this is my school, my team, my pride. Fans responded in kind.

Assembly Hall was a packed house of orange-clad faithful screaming and yelling making it one of the most formidable home court advantages in college basketball. Every fan was an extension of the Orange Krush student section.

When number one Wake Forest came to town, Illinois completely destroyed them 91–73 at Assembly Hall. Wake Forest never led at any point in the game. After that dominating performance, it was Illinois who was ranked number one and they held that spot the rest of the season.

Sports fans began to take notice. Everywhere the players went in Champaign-Urbana, they’d be mobbed by fans. Roger Powell showed up in the lobby of The News-Gazette inquiring about getting a few copies of the newspaper his picture was front and center on and a crowd instantly appeared around him pressing pens and paper for him to sign. Posters that appeared in programs sold at each home game became hot collector’s items.

They started acquiring celebrity fans like Bill Murray.

During the NCAA selection show, it came as little surprise Illinois was the overall number one team in the field. Dee Brown was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. They started drawing large numbers of fans to their pre-game shoot-arounds. As the tournament started, they cruised through their first few match-ups. Everyone was eyeing the Arizona versus Illinois Elite Eight game as the one to watch.

It did not disappoint.

Without a doubt, the Arizona-Illinois game was by far the best final four minutes of comeback basketball ever played. More than a decade later, it still stuns me how the Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball team beat the Arizona Wildcats.

At halftime the Arizona lead was only two points, but the second half exploded into a 15 point lead. Nothing like this had happened all season. Jay Bilas, calling the game on TV, said, “Illinois has relied way too much on the three in this game.” Little did he know what was about to happen.

Williams can tie it with a three… he does!

Over the last three minutes of play, Illinois made three of four threes, added points on turnovers and took the game into overtime. It was staggering to see. Down by 13 with 3:28 left, down by 11 with 3:00 left, down by nine with 2:43 left, down by five with :57 left. Dee Brown stole the ball and made a breakaway layup and Illinois was only down by three with :45 left. Everyone wearing orange was screaming. The Arizona players were shellshocked. Another steal on the in-bounds and Deron Willians hit a three with 34 seconds left to tie it at 80. The place went bonkers.

Bill Murray, decked out in Illini orange, was going crazy.
I was at my parent’s house watching the game and I was pacing the entire time, behind the couch, tearing my hair out and pleading with the basketball gods. My Dad was calmly sitting on the couch and not reacting like his crazy lunatic of a son. Years of being a coach and being around coaches allowed him to keep his emotions in check. After the Luther Head steal he said almost matter-of-factly, “Luther Head still wants to play.” After the three to tie it he said calmly, “Deron Williams has ice-water running through his veins.”

The Deron Williams game-tying three is what most Illinois fans call “The Shot.” Although, to be fair there’s quite a few vying for that moniker such as Cory Bradford’s shot to beat Indiana as well as Tyler Griffey’s layup to beat Indiana. Illinois likes beating Indiana.

The game went into overtime and Illinois came out hot sinking threes and getting another breakaway layup. Still, Arizona was not going to roll over and give up. What most fans forget about this game is Deron Williams held the best shooter in college basketball, Salim Stoudamire, to a 2-for-13 night in the biggest game of his NBA-bound career. Even though Arizona shaved a six-point Illini lead to just one point in overtime, Williams made it impossible for Stoudamire to get a shot off to win the game. Illinois advanced to its first Final Four in sixteen years in front of an ecstatic crowd at Allstate Arena and Illini Nation everywhere.

I was in a state of shock.

Sure, they’d get beat in the National Championship game by a cheating North Carolina, but reaching that game did not make this team revered in college basketball. It was the 2005 Regional Final.

I’d like to think the climb back up the mountain to greatness can happen again with Illinois basketball. Remember, college basketball comes in cycles. Talented players are on the roster next year including Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Jaylon Coleman-Lands. Plus, Dee Brown now works for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Illinois bringing it all back around again.

It’s time for Illinois Basketball to climb the mountain. Just one foot in front of the other.

I want to see another run like the 2004–2005 team. It can happen.