Tate: Flyin' Illini FYI
The 1988-89 season was a dunkathon overflowing with all those incredible, expressive slams.
Not just an occasional windmill smash the way Efrem Winters did it. Or a high flyer by Brandon Paul.
No, a quarter-century ago, it was everybody all the time. That’s why they were called the Flyin’ Illini.
There was explosive Kenny with a 360-spin, powerful Nick with a violent put-away, and electric Kendall with a hammered lefty.
There was Lowell with his incredible wingspan, and Marcus off the bench with a tomahawk.
No 1989 team captured the imagination of Basketball Nation like these Illini.
And only one Illini team in the modern era — the Dee-Deron 37-2 team in 2005 — has challenged them for the top spot on the Illini ladder.
Coach Lou Henson and his gang are returning this weekend for a gala 25-year reunion. Here are 25 reasons why they should be remembered.
1. The Flyin’ Illini never lost a game when they were healthy. They reached 17-0 when Kendall Gill fractured his foot in the 103-92 2-OT defeat of Georgia Tech. Striving to rebuild the rotation without a key piece, they dropped the first three Big Ten road games at Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa before carrying a 13-1 run into the Final Four where, unlike Kenny Battle who recovered from his leg injury in the Minneapolis Regional, Lowell Hamilton was still hampered by a sprained ankle.
2. Competition that season was stifling and the Big Ten was never better. In those days, most future NBA stars like Glen Rice (Michigan), Willie Burton (Minnesota) and Steve Smith (Michigan State) stuck around before turning pro. The Big Ten alone had 17 (that’s seventeen!) first- and second-round draft picks in 1989 and 1990, including first-rounders Battle and Nick Anderson in 1989 and Gill in 1990.
3. The NCAA regional in Minneapolis was a story in itself. Rod Cardinal was up through the night caring for Battle after he slipped on a wet spot prior to the Louisville game. Marcus Liberty, Larry Smith and Ervin Small filled in brilliantly.
4. Prior to Illinois’ late rally from 15 down to nip Arizona in 2005, the UI’s most stirring NCAA triumph was the comeback from an 18-point first-half deficit to nip Syracuse 89-86 in Minneapolis. This sent the Flyin’ Illini to the Final Four. Against the Orangemen, Battle made a miraculous comeback from a sprained knee, Anderson was outstanding, and Gill came up with big plays near the end.
5. The Illini defeated Big Ten champion Indiana twice and NCAA champion Michigan twice before falling in the final seconds (83-81) to the Wolverines in Seattle’s Final Four. Illinois entered as a No. 1 seed even after finishing 14-4 in the Big Ten and a game behind Indiana.
6. Henson was an innovator in switching four players against opposing ball screens. And he’d switch all five in late-game situations, a move made possible by the fact that the first six players stood between 6-4 and 6-7, and key reserve Liberty was an agile 6-8. These were interchangeable parts. Stephen Bardo could guard an opposing point or a power forward, and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
7. With Battle incredibly explosive at the power forward — a human highlight reel — Henson took advantage of team quickness and physical mismatches by pressuring defensively after dead balls and made free throws. Battle led the team in steals, an unlikely accomplishment for a 4.
8. The “togetherness” coaching staff was of one mind. Not only did Henson have close confidants Dick Nagy, Jimmy Collins and Mark Coomes, but contributors to the heady operation were aides Scott Nagy and John Giannini, film director Jim Phillips (now Northwestern AD) and trainer Rod Cardinal. Scott Nagy and Giannini put teams in the NCAA tournament last year (Giannini’s LaSalle team beat Kansas State and Ole Miss).
9. Thanks in part to all those dunks, the Illini made over half their shots (51.3) for the fourth consecutive season, a percentage no Illini team has since attained.
10. Coomes quipped this week that the Flyin’ Illini’s best offense was a missed shot, noting: “They were so quick and explosive. You couldn’t keep them off the offensive glass.”
11. The Flying Illini topped 100 points on eight occasions, setting a school record with 127 in a blowout at Louisiana State. Including the tournament itself, LSU was one of 18 UI opponents that played in March Madness that season.
12. Comebacks from double-digit deficits marked historic wins over Missouri, Georgia Tech and Syracuse. But the Flyin’ Illini also trailed Indiana at home 35-25 before rallying to win 75-65, and fell behind 47-34 at Indiana where Bardo fired a late pass to Anderson for his famous 35-footer. This was the longest game-winning shot since Bob Starnes unleashed a three-quarter length heave to beat Northwestern in 1963.
13. There was no Big Ten tournament at the time but, beginning with the win at Indiana March 5, Illinois played Top 20 teams in seven of the last eight games, and built a 20-plus margin at Michigan to spoil Senior Day there prior to the NCAA tournament.
14. Henson’s 14th UI team, with all the scholarship players from the home state, never lost at home. In a 17-0 run, they had only three games decided by less than double figures and finished with a 118-94 rout of an Iowa team that received an NCAA No. 4 seed.
15. Battle spearheaded the greatest-ever rally of the Missouri series, Illinois earning the sixth of eight straight wins in St. Louis. The talent-laden Tigers, a No. 3 NCAA seed featuring Derrick Chievous and Doug Smith, jumped out by 19 points before the Illini ignited about four minutes before halftime and carried it to an 89-86 victory.
16. Anderson became the first Illini to take up jersey No. 25 in honor of the late Ben Wilson, prep standout who was shot and killed outside Simeon High School. When Anderson played there, Simeon was 27-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the season. Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn now wears that UI number.
17. Jens Kujawa shared the center position equally with Hamilton in 1988 before returning early to Germany. Hamilton took full advantage as a senior. This is the same Hamilton who was ranked the No. 1 prep in the nation by Street & Smith, and whose recruitment from Providence St. Mel ignited Bob Knight complaints that contributed to an NCAA investigation several years later.
18. Andy Kaufmann, who twice led state scoring at Jacksonville and shot a national record 918 free throws in high school, played briefly in 12 games before sitting out the rest of the 1989 season with a blood clot in his left shoulder.
19. Gill scored 99 points in the five games before he was injured against Georgia Tech. Illinois went 8-4 in his absence. As a senior in 1990, he became the first Illini since Andy Phillip in 1943 to lead the Big Ten in conference scoring (20.4).
20. Best explanations for the Final Four loss to Michigan: Rice was unstoppable and the Wolverines were bubbling with talent ... they got new energy when Steve Fisher replaced departing Bill Frieder as coach for the tourney ... Hamilton wasn’t 100 percent and was off in his shooting ... third time’s a charm.
21. Anderson played two rough-and-ready seasons, always seemingly at his best in the toughest situations, and never fouled out. He sat out as a freshman for academic reasons (Prop 48) and did not return as a senior, and yet he is still regarded by many as the UI’s greatest basketball player.
22. Transfers weren’t routine in those days. Battle switched when his close Aurora-based relationship with coach John McDougal at Northern Illinois was severed. McDougal didn’t want to leave the Mid-American Conference (a football decision) and the furor led to his firing at a time when Battle was one of five sophomores who would have returned. Battle’s year of preparation resembled that of Rayvonte Rice in terms of what he brought to the practice court.
23. Henson’s willingness to embark on systematic change can’t be overlooked. He sped it up drastically from the Winters-Douglas teams that won 95 games in four seasons ending in 1986.
24. If the Flyin’ Illini had a edge on the 2005 unit, it was the bench. Smith, the team’s sixth man, led the Illini in assists with 157 (Smith was the UI’s co-MVP in 1991), and Liberty averaged 8.4 points as a reserve. Nor should Small’s contributions in the Minneapolis Regional be overlooked.
25. Most of all, these guys were basketball pros, the best athletes the state had to offer, and they carried a winning demeanor. The Flyin’ Illini were on a mission from that dismal day they missed late free throws to blow the lead against Villanova in the 1988 NCAA tournament. For me, that loss was the UI’s most devastating giveaway because the sky was the limit then too.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.