Dramatic Comeback vs. Arizona Only One Reason Why 2005 Illini Are Still Adored
What makes a team beloved and remembered for years after the cheering stops?
It has to win at a high level. It has to have a personality that sets it apart. And it often has to conquer some serious adversity that galvanizes the memories of that team in the hearts of its followers.
I was thinking about that the other day, when I mentioned that Illinois’ miraculous comeback to defeat Arizona in a 2015 Elite Eight game was the best NCAA tournament game I had ever witnessed. It all happened exactly 15 years ago today. Here’s a recap of the final minutes of that game.
So many people reached out to remember that remarkable game. Down 75-60 with four minutes to go, the Illini rallied to pull into an 80-80 tie at the end of regulation and went on to win 90-89 in overtime.
But Illinois' 2005 post-season was not without tumult. Bruce Weber's mother died during the Big Ten tournament. And in the Sweet 16, Illinois faced Wisconsin-Milwaukee, coached by Bruce Pearl, who was despised by Illini Nation for secretly taping Deon Thomas and providing ambiguous evidence that led to a dubious NCAA probation.
There also was a comedian. Bill Murray, whose Illinois connection was simply that he had grown up in suburban Chicago, took a prominent seat on the Illini bandwagon. He entertained and inspired the team, including a riff on ``this Os-kee-wow-wow thing,'' which is part of Illinois' cheering lexicon. Being seated on press row next to the Illini radio crew, I was excited to learn that Murray would be a guest during the Arizona broadcast. But alas, when he did his thing, he spoke so softly, I couldn't hear a word.
In addition, the Milwaukee and Arizona games were played at the universally unloved Allstate Arena, near O'Hare Airport, rather than the palatial United Center, near Chicago's downtown attractions. The Allstate Arena was the dark, nondescript home of DePaul at the time. The press room seemingly was in the next suburb, which left the assembled media grumbling.
And for me, the arena held an even darker past. When it was being built in 1979, the roof—a unique wooden design that was supposed to mask the noise of low-flying jets landing at O'Hare—collapsed, killing five workers and injuring 16. I was a news reporter at that time and was assigned to knock on doors of the victims to get comments. That was a day when I resolved to push harder for a transfer to the sports department.
That Arizona victory put Illinois in the Final Four for the first time 1989 and only the second time since 1952.
Without that win, I don’t know how that team would have been remembered. But I suspect it might have been regarded as an under-achiever. Those Illini started 29-0, not losing until their final regular-season game. After they beat No. 1 Wake Forest (led by Chris Paul) in early December, the Illini were the nation’s top-ranked team for the rest of the season.
Illinois had a very unusual ride during that post-season: All bus rides. The Big Ten tournament was in Chicago and it was sent to Indianapolis for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Final Four was in St. Louis. Which meant that all the games were within a three-hour drive of Champaign.
The Illini not only were good. They played an interesting perimeter-oriented style. Deron Williams, who went on to a stellar 14-year NBA career, was their best player, a guard who shoot and create for others. Luther Head was a talented wing who spent seven years in the NBA and could shoot the three and go to the hoop.
The face of the program, though, was Dee Brown, a 6-0 blur who used his charisma and his motor at both ends of the court. He managed only an NBA cup of coffee, But the enthusiastic little guy with the headband was the consummate college hoops hero. He had the wins and the Sports Illustrated cover to prove it.
Their frontcourt, led by James Augustine, held up its end of the deal. It was not deep or imposing, but it provided a tough and clutch complement to Illinois’ gifted perimeter.
That team became such a phenomenon that we covered it like a pro team. In 20 years on the Illinois basketball beat, the Dee & Deron years were the only ones that demanded that I make the 2½-hour drive to Champaign for practice-day interviews on a regular basis.
On the plus side, Dee & Deron and their teammates always gave us something to write about. It was strange, though. One day, Dee would be filling up our notebooks; the next time, it would be Deron. I always wondered if they had worked that out beforehand.
Putting it all together was Bruce Weber, whose motion offense was perfectly suited to his roster. Actually, Weber’s offense was a better fit for these players than the high-low attack used by Weber’s predecessor, Bill Self, who had left this team for Weber when he took the Kansas job in the spring of 2003.
That was a source of irritation for Weber, who tried to put the Self comparisons to rest by staging a locker-room ``funeral’’ for Self in December of 2003.
The optics were awkward, but Weber got his point across. His players adjusted to Weber’s straightforward personality and sound scheme, and wound up 26-7, including 13-3 in the Big Ten in his first season.
Weber also handled his media relations exceptionally well. He was open and candid. He took my calls during the process that led to him getting the Illinois job; when I didn’t really know him. Not many coaches do that.
And when I was laid up after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer toward the end of his Illini run, he texted me regularly. He was and is an all-around solid man, a good guy and good coach. I felt bad when some recruiting setbacks (and a strange new athletic director) cost him his job. And I’m glad he quickly landed on his feet at Kansas State.
That 2004 team reached the Sweet 16 with a second-round 92-68 blowout of Cincinnati in a game where the Bearcats had been a slight favorite. That drubbing of Bob Huggins’ team in Columbus, Ohio, was the game that really opened my eyes. It set the bar high for its 2005 run to the Final Four. It was the game where we saw how much the Illini and Weber could achieve.
The 2005 team lost to North Carolina in the national championship game, a year after Illinois lost to Duke in the Sweet 16.
But the Dee & Deron Illini achieved so much and showed so many attractive qualities. They adjusted to a new coach. They won without a dominant big man and without much of a bench.
They played under a bright spotlight and thrived. Dee Brown’s Sports Illustrated cover and his trademark pulling out of his jersey to display its ``I'm from Illinois'' lettering showed the team’s identity to an adoring Illini Nation, if not the world beyond.
For all of those underlying reasons, the win over Arizona defined a magical time in Illinois basketball. A time that is remembered fondly 15 years later, a time that will be recalled for many years to come.