One shining 2005
A look back at the best year in Illini basketball history:
1. Comeback kids
Trailing 75-60 with four minutes to play, Illinois looked like a team about to see its dream season come apart. Then the Illini came alive. Deron Williams' game-tying three-pointer with 38 seconds left capped a 20-5 Illinois run that forced overtime, where Williams sank two more threes. When Hassan Adams' jumper at the buzzer misfired, Illinois celebrated its first trip to the Final Four since 1989. During a wild postgame scene, Bruce Weber didn't even try to hide his emotions, weeping as he embraced coaches and players.
2. Carolina blues
The NCAA championship game featured a rare meeting between two teams who'd dominated the regular season, and it lived up to its billing. Though No. 2 North Carolina dominated the first half, the top-ranked Illini rallied in the second, only to fall short 75-70. Illinois, one of the nation's most dangerous three-point shooting teams, made 12 of 40 shots from behind the line, and late wide-open misses sealed Illinois' fate. It was a heartbreaking finish to a brilliant season. Said Weber: "If you're not happy with this, I feel sorry for you, because life ain't getting any better."
3. It's in the Cards
Illinois had played 99 seasons of basketball without ever reaching the NCAA title game. The 100th time was the charm, as the Illini battered Louisville in the second half of a Final Four semifinal, ultimately winning 72-57. Roger Powell Jr. provided the most memorable play when he missed a three-pointer, then grabbed his own rebound for a two-handed dunk.
4. Welcome back
Second-best still drew a first-rate celebration from the folks in Champaign when the Illini returned from the Final Four in St. Louis. A crowd estimated at 25,000 showed up at Memorial Stadium to welcome back the best team Illinois basketball had ever known. Chancellor Richard Herman summed up the mood of the afternoon when, during his speech, he told the Illinois players, "You didn't let us down. You lifted us up!"
5. One-derful year
Jan. 1-April 5, 2005
A win in 2004 (Illinois' 91-73 rout of Wake Forest) had propelled the Illini to the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches' polls, and they refused to budge. Illinois remained No. 1 throughout the season in the AP poll, which doesn't hold a vote after the NCAA tournament. It was No. 2 in the final coaches' poll. Illinois was the nation's No. 1 team for 15 consecutive weeks – the longest stay atop the polls in eight years. Not a bad run for a school that had lost its first game both times it had previously reached the No. 1 spot.
6. Centennial celebration
Jan. 29, 2005
More than 350 former players, coaches, managers and support staff members returned to the Assembly Hall to celebrate Illinois' 100th season of basketball, and the 2005 Illini gave them a treat, dismantling Minnesota to improve to 21-0. The weekend was a perfect opportunity to engage in a season-long debate: Whether this Illinois team was better than the 1989 Flyin' Illini, whose 17-0 start to the season had been the previous school record. Ultimately, Illinois would win 29 in a row before a season-finale shocker, a 65-64 loss at Ohio State.
7. Triumph and tragedy
March 11-13, 2005
Illinois' basketball season was mostly smooth sailing, but its most harrowing days came not after losses, but during its three-day run to the Big Ten tournament championship. On March 11, the day Illinois beat Northwestern in the tournament quarterfinals, Weber's mother, Dawn, died after being rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Their coach returned to the sideline the next day, and the Illini gutted out two more wins in an emotional weekend.
8. Road sweet road
Jan. 25, 2005
The Illini had set lofty goals in the preseason, including a second straight outright Big Ten title and a national championship. But they'd also circled a January date at Wisconsin. Behind Luther Head's 18 points, Illinois did just what it had set out to do, beating the Badgers at the Kohl Center to snap Wisconsin's 38-game home court winning streak and give Bo Ryan his first Big Ten loss at the arena.
9. Terrific trio
June 28, 2005
All season, Illinois had been defined by its three-headed monster of a backcourt, and in the summer, the NBA recognized two thirds of it. The Utah Jazz took Williams third in the draft – the highest Illinois selection ever – and the Houston Rockets selected Head 24th. Dee Brown, meanwhile, pulled out of the draft after a foot injury at the NBA predraft camp in Chicago.
10. They're ba-aaack
Dec. 30, 2005
What drop-off? With Brown and James Augustine back and a host of key players stepping up from supporting roles, Illinois roared to a 14-0 start to the 2005-06 season. Wins at home at North Carolina and in Portland against Oregon keyed a surprising start for the Illini, who rocketed to sixth in The Associated Press poll with an assist from a better-than-expected newcomer, sharp-shooting Jamar Smith. And the impact of Illinois' 37-2 record since the start of 2004-05 started to show on the recruiting trail as the Illini got an oral commitment from Indianapolis junior Eric Gordon, who picked the Illini over Duke.