Welcome to “Good Morning, Illini Nation,” your daily dose of college basketball news from Illini beat writer and AP Top 25 voter Scott Richey. He’ll offer up insights every morning until practice tips off.
On Sundays, we’ll dip into our vast News-Gazette archives and stroll Memory Lane. Today: A look back at one of the happier moments for Illini Nation, the night the 2004-05 Illini made their emphatic move to No. 1 with a 91-73 drubbing of top-ranked Wake Forest. Days after the Dec. 1, 2004, beatdown, Bruce Weber’s bunch topped the AP’s rankings and stayed there until a title-game loss to North Carolina.
Heading into the 2004-05 season, Illinois was considered a serious contender. In conjunction with that fall’s election, we designed placards for college basketball’s top teams and placed them in the yard of then sports editor Jim Rossow. Here’s what Loren Tate wrote: “No wonder the orange-clad fandom is in a frenzy. With Gonzaga and Wake Forest coming up early, the latter Dec. 1 at home, the Illini could go steamrolling toward Christmas with a legitimate shot at the nation’s No. 1 ranking, a position they haven’t held since briefly in 1989. Those are giant thoughts but exactly the thoughts that ever-optimistic Illini Nation is thinking.”
The arrival of Wake Forest has fans camping out nights in advance. More from N-G photographer Heather Coit: Aaron Dubnow, far left, happily accepts hot chocolate from friend, Erin McKeague, center left, as Dubnow and Eric Benz, far right, share their tent with fellow die-hard Orange Krush freshmen while trying to stay warm camping outside Assembly Hall in Champaign on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2004. Dubnow and Benz, who pitched their tent at 8 p.m. on Monday, enjoyed their status of being first in line to the Assembly Hall. Many other Orange Krush members, determined to be courtside when Illinois takes on Wake Forest, braved the snow and cold weather as they encircled Assembly Hall with their tents. The players delivered pizzas at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, and coach Bruce Weber came through with doughnuts and hot chocolate in the morning.
Remember when home games were all orange? Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head helped The News-Gazette spread the word about a “Paint The Hall Orange” night by working with photographer Robert K. O’Daniell. Illinois entered the Wake Forest game 54-2 the last four-plus years at the Assembly Hall and had won 34 straight nonconference home games. “For big games, it’s an awesome atmosphere,” forward James Augustine said. “People can say that the ACC is tougher to play in than the Big Ten, but when you get to the Assembly Hall, you can see for yourself.”
The game pitted two point guards who would go on to NBA stardom: Chris Paul and Deron Williams. The Illini’s backcourt shined on this night, Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head combining for 40 points, 23 assists and 16 rebounds. Paul and Justin Gray were held to 7-for-27 shooting. “We made a statement that we are pretty good,” Brown said. “We’re one of the best teams, if not the best, in the Big Ten. Hopefully we’re one of those teams that are going to make some noise come March.”
James Augustine and the Illini had reason to celebrate. Here’s what beat writer Brett Dawson wrote: For one night, this town was the center of the basketball universe. And Illinois’ 91-73 rout of Wake Forest on Wednesday provided one heck of a college hoops big bang. The fans cheered – and “booed” and “Luuuued” and “Bruuuuced” – the band blared, and when the orange dust settled, Illinois had utterly dominated the nation’s top-ranked team.The obvious question in the Wake (er, wake) of Illinois’ destruction of the Demon Deacons: Is anybody better than the Illini? “I don’t know what to say,” Illinois guard Dee Brown said. “After that performance, you tell me.”Ask the 16,618 hoarse fans who packed the Assembly Hall and chanted “We’re No. 1” as the final seconds ticked. Ask the national audience that watched on ESPN. Or ask the Demon Deacons, who came in keepers of their first-ever No. 1 national ranking and left to echoes of ’overrated!’“If I had a vote?” Wake center Eric Williams said. “I’d put them No. 1 for sure.”
The win was one of Bruce Weber’s finest as Illinois coach. And he dressed accordingly. Here is what Brett Dawson wrote: Weber broke out a blazing-orange blazer for Wednesday’s 91-73 win against top-ranked Wake Forest. Today, he’ll put it away. “The coat’s going to be put in hibernation,” Weber said. Weber was fitted for the jacket at Delbert’s in Arthur and had a company in Chicago do his tailoring. Unlike last year, when his off-orange jacket for “Paint the Hall Orange” night drew mixed reviews, the coach was decked out in the right shade. Mr. Blackwell might not approve, but Weber plans to break out the jacket again when Minnesota visits for Illinois’ Centennial reunion in January. “For me, it’s an honor to wear it,” Weber said. “Coach Henson wore it, and he means a lot to the history of Illinois basketball.”Then Weber corrected himself.“Not this jacket, specifically,” Weber said. “This one’s tailor-made.”
The Orange Krush — and the rest of the 16,618 fans at the Assembly Hall – went berserk. It marked the second time in 21 tries the Illini beat a No. 1 team, and the first time since 1979. Wake Forest never led in the game and was down double digits after eight minutes. Credit the fans, Roger Powell said. “I believe it will screw up any team that came in here to play with an atmosphere like that,” Powell said. Added Dee Brown: “It was the best ever. They got us going.”
One of college basketball’s finest leaders, Dee Brown kept the win in perspective. Here is what Bob Asmussen wrote afterward: There wasn’t a whole bunch of cheering by the Illini after the game, Dee Brown said. The Illini were happy to win, but it won’t go to their heads.“Most teams would have been in the locker room celebrating,” Brown said. “We went in there like it was business. The maturity level and the players we have know you can win this game and easily get off track and go to Arkansas and lose.”Still, business is good.“Being on a great team, an unselfish team, is always fun,” Brown said.
Afterward, the kids stormed the court to cap a night so special The News-Gazette Editorial Board even weighed in. “If this is to be an exceptionally memorable centennial of Illinois basketball, the players and fans will have to maintain the enthusiasm and spirit they’ve shown in the first five games. It won’t be easy. But it looks like it will be fun. “Keep this up and four months from today – on April 3, 2005 – we’ll all be biting our nails about the next day’s NCAA championship game.”
The cover of the Dec. 2 sports page showed Dee Brown in his finest hour (and our football writer Bob Asmussen apologizing for not including Ron Zook on his initial list of candidates to replace Ron Turner). Days later, the AP voters moved Illinois to No. 1. “It’s not like preseason No. 1,” Deron Williams said. “Now you’ve played some games, you’ve faced some opponents. You’ve earned it. It’s not something that somebody just gave to you.”