Saturday April 2nd, 2005

More than 21,000 spectators, the overwhelming majority clad in orange, filled the entire lower bowl of the Edward Jones Dome on Friday, and as the arena clock neared the appointed 2:00 p.m. start time of practice, nearly every one of them stood in anticipation, neck craned toward the tunnel from which their heroes would soon emerge.

Center Nick Smith was the first one out, followed closely by Jack Ingram, heads down and focused, but by the time it got to Dee Brown and head coach Bruce Weber, the cheers were too loud to ignore. Weber smiled and saluted the crowd, then began leading the event precipitating such a turnout: a routine, mostly boring hour-long shootaround.

Blandness is apparently in the eye of the beholder, though. The spectators cheered every made shot, oohed and ahhed at every dunk and clapped in unison to the familiar sounds of the Illinois pep band. When the clock finally stuck 0:00 and the Illini jogged off the court, the fans stood in ovation and roared their encouragement.

Keep in mind, this same army of orange had also sat through Louisville's and Michigan State's practices beforehand. "I didn't see much red," conceded Cardinals freshman Juan Palacios.

The official name of this weekend's festivities is the Final Four, and this reporter has confirmed with his own eyes that there are indeed four different teams here. There's no question, however, as to which one is the darling of the ball. The Illini have been treated like rock stars since their arrival, whisked out the back entrance of their hotel when possible and mobbed by autograph seekers on the occasions where they do have to use the lobby.

"When Coach Weber put 'St. Louis' on the chalkboard at the beginning of the year," said Illini fan Steven King of Lewisville, Ill., a front-row spectator at Friday's open practice, "so did we."

It's been said on numerous occasions that the Illini are a "team of destiny," what with the coinciding forces of a 29-0 start, a geographically favorable bracket (Indianapolis, Chicago and St. Louis, all less than three hours from campus) and this being the program's 100th year of basketball. It's a sentiment that has grown stronger ever since the death of Weber's 81-year-old mother at the start of the postseason and their miraculous Elite Eight comeback against Arizona.

"That word -- [destiny] -- is getting thrown around a lot right now," said Smith. "I hope people are right."

Smith's teammate Warren Carter is slightly more steadfast in his belief in the team's predetermined status -- "some call it pressure [to capture the title], but we feel like it's our destiny," he said -- but the fact is, there are three equally if not more capable teams here who all have their own reasons to believe fate is on their side. Their opponent Saturday, Louisville, has defied the odds just to get here, is oozing with sentimental storylines (Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean's family tragedies, Ellis Myles' return from a season-long injury) and will have its own drove of supporters whose campus is only 80 miles farther away than Illinois'. And if the Illini do get past the Cardinals, they may face a title-game matchup against a North Carolina team that's been on a three-year rebuilding mission from the depths of an 8-20 nightmare, and whose coach, Roy Williams, many feel is meant to finally capture his first national title now that he's returned to his alma mater.

"I definitely feel it's our destiny," said Tar Heels senior Melvin Scott. "A lot of people doubted us, but we're a whole different team from last year to this year. I feel it's our time now."

All of the Final Four teams feel that way -- why shouldn't they? -- and there were countless others who probably felt that way back in October. Illinois, however, has been plotting this moment for even longer.

"St. Louis was one of the goals we talked about since the time I got the job [two years ago]," said Weber, who, shortly after returning from last year's Final Four, hung a miniature Arch in the locker room. "All year we've seen the March to the Arch posters, then all of a sudden we're coming across the bridge [Wednesday night], the city is lit up and there's the Arch. A couple of kids were joking about it, but I think it hit them that we were truly here."

According to Smith, Weber first addressed the possibility of the potential Indianapolis-Chicago-St. Louis tourney run -- the most favorable a Final Four team has enjoyed since 2000 champ Michigan State played in Cleveland, Detroit and Indianapolis -- to his players at a meeting the day before their first preseason practice. Sure enough, the homecourt advantage has paid dividends.

"In Chicago," said forward James Augustine, "when we made that great run [from 15 points down] in the Arizona game, I don't know if we would have been able to pull it all the way off without being able to feed off the energy of the fans."

Even without the crush of orange invading the state border this weekend -- many of whom don't have tickets but just want to be part of the festivities -- Illinois has as big a local fan base as any school but Missouri, and there's no question local business leaders have been rooting all year for Illinois to get here.

"No matter what combination of teams, we'd be filled to the brim," said Mark Schrieber of the St. Louis Sports Commission. "With Illinois here, we're overflowing."

Neil Bowery of Brockton, Ill., couldn't afford tickets this weekend -- he said a scalper wanted $24,000 for six tickets -- but made the drive for Friday's shootaround with his three teenage daughters. "They skipped school," he conceded. King said he paid $2,000 for a ticket to Monday night's title game. What if the Illini don't make it? "They'll make it," said King.

Such uncheckered enthusiasm is par for the course among the Orange Krush. Admittedly, most of them had conceded the dream was dead with about four minutes to go in last weekend's Arizona game. But now that they've safely reached their first Final Four since 1989 -- and potentially the last one for a while what with junior stars Brown and Deron Williams strong possibilities to depart after the season along with seniors Luther Head, Roger Powell Jr., Smith and Ingram -- the grand prize, they agree, must be destined.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our fans," said Ingram. "I don't know if we'll be able to recreate last weekend with how many fans we had compared with everyone else, but you have to give them credit."

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