Memory Lane: Ending another Sweet 16 drought

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: If it beats Miami, Illinois will reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. In 2001, the Illini ended a much-longer Sweet 16 drought by winning twice in Dayton.

Date: March 19, 2001

Headline: Business done, Illini pack bags for Texas sun

By JIM ROSSOW

DAYTON, Ohio – Breaking down the wall to the Sweet 16 certainly was rewarding for Illinois.

Finding a forecast calling for 80 degrees and plenty of sun on the other side was an added bonus.

"San Antonio is beautiful this time of year," said center Marcus Griffin, one of the few Illini familiar with a city called every Texans' second home. "You can wear shorts. You don't need jeans, you don't need coats. You can just relax."

Fourth-ranked Illinois, of course, would have played on an outdoor court in Anchorage if it meant making the Sweet 16. That Friday's trip to the Midwest Regional semifinal against Kansas requires sun screen is better news for the legion of Illini fans expected to make the trip than it is for the players.

They won't have much time by the pool. For the first time since 1989, they'll still be in uniform.

"We were picked to lose by now," Griffin said. "I'd like to hear what everybody is saying about Illinois basketball now."

Here's a summation after Sunday's 79-61 romp against ninth-seeded Charlotte at Dayton Arena:

– The top-seeded Illini (26-7) are the NCAA tournament's most dominant first-weekend team. Their combined margin of victory – 60 points – is the most since Duke won its first two games by 62 points in 1999.

– They're playing with a smile on their face at a time when most teams are nervous nellies.

– Best yet, they don't have to answer any more questions about early-round flops.

"That's a big relief," Sean Harrington said, sounding a bit like Kansas coach Roy Williams, who earlier Sunday brought a toy monkey to his news conference and set it on the podium as opposed to his back.

"I don't know what was on anybody else's back," Cory Bradford said. "I just know we had a huge ape on ours."

Thanks to Sunday's dominating effort, the hairy hanger-on didn't make it through baggage check, making the short flight to Savoy all the more enjoyable.

"We feel this is the biggest win Illinois has had in a long time, at least since '89," Bradford said. "Maybe the biggest win ever."

The Illini have a chance to top it Friday night on CBS.

"Our goal is not to get to the Sweet 16," UI coach Bill Self said. "But it's a relief that we are there. It's a measuring stick."

One that's been out of reach for too long, the UI suffering four second-round setbacks since its trip to the Final Four. If this season's team – with its Big Ten championship, its Big Ten Player of the Year, its high RPI, its No. 1 seed and its tournament-proven coach – didn't make it, shock might have set in for a fan base on the edge.

"If we did not do what we did today, then you could look back and say, 'It's been a pretty good year,' " Self said. "Now we can say we've had a really good year. To make it great, we have to do something else."

A start would be to reach the Elite Eight. Have we mentioned Illinois hasn't been there, either, since 1989?

"I guess the monkey's still on our backs," Bradford said.

"Until we win a national championship," Griffin said.

The Illini – even though they had reason to – were careful not to celebrate too much Sunday, realizing they accomplished simply what the other No. 1 seeds did: advance on schedule.

How they did it turned heads, however. The Conference USA champs and one of nation's best freshmen never saw it coming, their six-game winning streak coming to a quick end. Brian Cook again played with confidence, scoring a team-high 16 points. Slowed by a cold, Frank Williams was double-double trouble with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Griffin put the defensive clamps on Charlotte star Rodney White (nine points on 4-of-13 shooting). And Sergio McClain played as if an IHSA title was on the line.

"We didn't want to go out of here sad-faced, saying we shoulda, we coulda, we woulda," McClain said. "A lot of people were doubting us. We wanted some respect."

Consider it done.

"They're as classy a team as we've played all year," said Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz, who had his choice of adjectives. Talented and hard-nosed would have applied, too.

"Hey, it's not over yet," Williams said. "It's a long season ahead of us. It may be two weeks, it may be one week. The pressure is still on us."

For a moment Sunday, the pressure was lifted. Players mingled with family and friends in the empty arena as UI officials began making plans for San Antonio (call 1-800-DOME for tickets). The coaching staff was able to wind down after days holed up in a hotel room breaking down film. The athletic director was handing out pats on the back.

The Illini, who preach about enjoying the moment, were practicing their motto.

"Last year at this point, we were all disappointed," Griffin said. "Some people didn't to talk to anybody. Right now, everyone's happy."

Even if classes are back in session and one of the more storied programs in college basketball is on tap. Kansas looked as if Danny Manning still was on the roster in dismantling Syracuse 87-58 in Sunday's opener.

"If you think you can walk past them, they're going to embarrass you," Frank Williams said.

That's another problem for another day.

"There's a lot I love about this team," Self said. "One of the things is they work hard and like challenges and play the best under brighter lights.

"There's certainly no brighter lights than the tournament."

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