2021 Illinois Fighting Illini
Since 1905-’06, the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball program has been dominating on the hardwood. For most of the last century, Illinois has been at or near the upper echelon of college basketball. Since head coach Harry Combes established a winning culture starting in the 1940s, the University of Illinois has been a basketball school. However, after winning zero official national championships, the University of Illinois is known as the greatest basketball program to have never won a National Championship.
As many of you know, I have coined the 2005 team as the “Real Champs” because despite losing in the National Championship Game to North Carolina 75-70, I think that year’s team was the true champion. They spent 15 weeks as the #1 team in the nation. They started 29-0 before losing the regular season finale at Ohio St. by one point, 65-64. Then they had a remarkable run to the NCAA Championship Game before losing to the “official” champion, North Carolina. Illinois finished 37-2, which tied for the most wins ever in one season until broken by 2008 Memphis, 2012 Kentucky, and 2015 Kentucky, who all won 38 games, and were all coached by John Calipari. 2008 Memphis (38-2) lost in the Championship game to Kansas (37-3) in OT, coached by former Illini coach Bill Self. 2012 Kentucky (38-2) won it all, led by local Chicago high school superstar Anthony Davis. In 2015, Kentucky started 38-0 but lost in the Final Four semifinal to Wisconsin 71-64 to finish 38-1.
So what does it all mean? It means that these teams are the few and the proud. These were the greatest teams in the modern era. They not only won the most times but they also lost the fewest. In a few instances they carried extensive winning streaks from the start of a season all the way to the end. Only three teams have won more than ’05 Illinois and only one of those teams won the National Championship with 38 wins.
The ’05 Tar Heels finished 33-4. They were really good, don’t get me wrong. They had loads of NBA talent. Six players landed in the NBA including Ray Felton and Marvin Williams. The Illini (Five NBA players including #3 overall pick Deron Williams) lost the game but was it a fair fight? The referees stole the Championship by calling five quick fouls on 6’10” center “Big” James Augustine, who fouled out in 9 minutes of time on the floor. Some of those fouls were so ticky-tack, such nickel dimers, that it makes one wonder if Tim Donaghy was involved. Without Augustine, the Illini were at a disadvantage against the Tar Heels big man, Sean May, who dominated inside (with help from those refs) to become the Most Outstanding Player with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 1 foul. One foul… Really? Total team fouls: Illini 18, UNC 13. Free throws: Illini 4 of 6, UNC 12 of 19.
It’s really quite a shame. Sixteen years after a heartbreaking loss to rival Michigan in the 1989 Final Four, the 2005 Illini were the better team, once again, and we felt hosed by the end result. Nonetheless, the ’05 Illini will live in our hearts forever as the “Real Champs”. Moving forward, I’ve always believed Illinois will one day win a National Championship. It will never be the same as 2005 of course. Nobody in the world is likely to start a season 29-0, unless they’re from a smaller, mid-major conference (Hello this year’s 26-0 Gonzaga). What the ’05 team did will never be forgotten. Their accomplishments outshine what most National Champs actually officially do. In other words, the “Real Champs” did more before 9 am than most national champions do all season.
So here we are, sixteen years later, again. The ’21 Fighting Illini are back with a chance to heal old wounds and fulfill the prophesy of the “Dutch Lion”. The #1 seeded Illini became the “Real” Big Ten Champions on Sunday by beating Ohio State 91-88 (OT) in the B1G Tournament Championship Game. Illinois is the official B1G Tournament Champion and the “Real” regular season/postseason/entire season B1G Champion with their 19-4 record versus the Big Ten Commissioner’s Office’s official regular season Champion Michigan Wolverines who finished with a 15-4 record. This entire controversy which Illini Athletic Director Josh Whitman pointed out the other day reminds me of two Big Ten controversies: 1) last year’s football season with the Ohio State/Indiana controversy involving the minimum amount of games needed to qualify for the B1G Championship Game appearance, and 2) the 1973 “Tiebreaker” vote to send either Michigan or Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. (I’m with Coach Bo Schembechler who is rolling over in his grave he is still so “Bitter, Bitter”)
Regarding 1973, I feel bad for Michigan. In 2021, no way man. Too bad, too sad Wolves! You could’ve made up all three COVID cancelled games but chose to sit out while the Big Ten Conference officials, headed by loser Commissioner Kevin Warren let you get away with it. I mean really, this is just like what Warren and his bums did in the football season to Indiana, with the exception that Indiana lost both the game and their argument to Ohio St. straight up on the field whereas Illinois won at Michigan in their only head-to-head matchup of the season…. by 23 points! I guess we all know who the Real Champs are now, don’t we?
This year’s Illinois team (23-6 so far) is one of the three or four greatest teams in school history, along with Coach Lou “Lou Do” Henson’s 1989 Flyin’ Illini (31-5) and of course Coach Bruce Weber’s ’05 Real Champs (37-2). Bill Self’s ’01 B1G Champs (27-8) led by Da’Monte Williams’s father Frankie is right there in the mix too, along with Henson’s 1984 B1G Championship team (26-5) that advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to Kentucky 54-51, and of course the original Final Four squads of 1949 (21-4) led by Dike Eddleman, 1951 (22-5) led by Don Sunderlage, and 1952 (22-4) led by the famous Johnny “Red” Kerr. All three of those groups won the Big Ten regular season championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, so we can’t forget about Coach Harry Combes’s regime.
My current vote is:
- 2005 “Real Champs”
- 1989 “Flyin’ Illini”
- 2021 “Ayo & the B1G Real Champs”
What will happen this March Madness? Even if we finally win it all, I might still keep the ’05 and ’89 teams ahead of this year’s squad. That’s what is so funny about sports. But who knows? It’s a fluid situation. I guess we’ll find out over the next three weeks. I have a gut feeling deep in my Illini bones that we’ll have to beat Baylor in a rematch of the December 2 game in which the Baylor Bears (22-2) were clearly better than us, beating us 82-69. But the Illini have clearly gotten better, losing only once since January 16. Kofi Cockburn is a beast. He gets plenty of Shaq O’Neal comparisons but how about Patrick Ewing too? Kofi has improved tremendously since last year, and even from the beginning of this season. Trent Frazier is a ball-hawk on defense and he has that sweet lefty three point shot. Giorgi Bezhanishvili is a great team player to have on your bench. Andre Curbelo is a magician with the ball. He’s got a New York City style reminiscent of Rod Strickland or Kenny Anderson. He’s a future superstar. There is so much talent and depth on this team. Da’Monte is the glue guy. He’s a team-first winner who knows the game. His dad might have been a better overall player but don’t sleep on Da’Monte. He knows the game and he’s tough. Adam Miller and Jacob Grandison round out the main eight player rotation. And I don’t need to tell you about Ayo Dosunmu. He’s a superstar, a great kid, the dude who changed the program. He’s the best player in America.
Has Illinois improved enough to get revenge on Baylor? I have a feeling the boys from Champaign-Urbana will do it. And then they could face an undefeated 31-0 Gonzaga team in the National Championship. That would be interesting. Gonzaga is certainly due for a loss while Illinois is certainly due for a Championship. After all the close calls, after all the heartbreak, THIS is the year. The “Dutch Lion” is counting on it. He feels it deep in his Illini bones. And even if he’s wrong, mark your calendars for 2037. That year is shaping up to be enormous.