It's been a frustrating season for the Illinois men's basketball team. It was a rebuilding year to begin with--Dee Brown and James Augustine, the last major players from the 2004 team that reached the NCAA championship game, are now freshmen in the pros. And then the rebuilding went awry: top guard prospect Eric Gordon of Indianapolis committed to Illinois, then changed his mind and decided to attend Indiana next fall, and coach Bruce Weber didn't react by making a late run at Simeon guard Derrick Rose (who opted for Memphis), thus cementing his reputation as a fine coach but a poor recruiter. Guards Rich McBride and Jamar Smith were charged with drunk driving in separate incidents, and Smith's put freshman center Brian Carlwell in the hospital in critical condition. And then the university, under pressure from the NCAA, retired the Fighting Illini's mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Finally, lllinois lost its home away from home, Chicago's United Center, for the annual Big Ten tournament--after several years in which the two cities had swapped the event back and forth, the conference assigned the next five tourneys to Indianapolis. So last weekend's tournament at the UC would be the last one played there until at least 2013.
Fuck the Big Ten, I thought--it's not getting any more of my money. After making a halfhearted run online for tickets to Illinois' second-round game against Indiana last Friday, my buddy Boom-Boom and I decided to watch it over dinner in the bar at the Fireside Inn. It turned out to be the perfect choice--there were TVs in every corner and the Georgetown-Notre Dame Big East tournament game was on one of them.
Illinois' frustrations came to a head that night, and although you didn't have to be an alum to feel the game's painful significance, it helped. (I'm class of 1981, and Boom-Boom, '80, was a promising sportswriter at the Daily Illini before losing his way at Georgetown's law school.) Indiana had stolen Gordon and stolen the tournament, and the red of their uniforms (and those ridiculous candy striper sweatpants) became as abhorrent as the whiteness of Moby-Dick.
The game was ugly--three yards and a cloud of dust, to borrow from Big Ten football. The Illini revealed themselves once and for all as a stupid basketball team, taking poor shots and making sloppy passes. With their three talented guards from the 2005 team--Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head--gone to the NBA, the Illini were built this season around forwards Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt. That made them a slogging team: like one of former coach Lou Henson's stereotypical Illini squads, they emphasized defensive fiber and got constipated on offense. Only Brian Randle had any court sense, but Randle was himself something of a disappointment. He was a lithe, smooth forward when I first saw him as a high school sophomore at a downstate holiday tournament several years ago, but he's outgrown much of his grace. (And with his well-trimmed hair, Boom-Boom noted, he looked more like a bearded G.I. Joe action figure than a basketball player.)
The Illini trailed 24-21 at halftime, and their play didn't pick up much after intermission. When they weren't turning the ball over, they took bad shots. Weber jammed his hands down his pockets or pinned them under his armpits in frustration as the Illini frittered away possession time and time again. "Look at Bruce," Boom-Boom said. "It's like, 'Why do I spend time at practice?' And still we're only down four."
But to his credit the coach has instilled a fine sense of team defense in his players, and that and just a little offense turned out to be enough. Carter hit former Simeon star Calvin Brock with a lovely outlet pass for a fast-break basket that cut the Indiana lead back to four again, 30-26. After another basket, Carter hit a rare three-pointer to put the Illini in front, and baby-faced guard Trent Meacham, a glimmer of hope for the future, added another to put Illinois up 34-31. The rest of the game was a scrum fought at the free-throw line as Weber and Indiana's new coach, Kelvin Sampson (the man who spirited Gordon away), argued their cases before the refs. The teams fell across the finish line tied at 50. With the Illini playing stifling defense, overtime too was largely conducted at the line, and the Illini hit enough free throws to win, with Meacham making a last pair for a 58-54 final.
The Illini lost the next day to a vastly superior Wisconsin team, which was on its way to being defeated by Ohio State. (This season, the Big Ten was really the Big Two.) But Illinois' win over Indiana was satisfying enough. It felt good like a victory should. (And Georgetown won too.) It's not something I generally emphasize, but a little well-placed hatred combined with pride of place adds spice to sports, and of such things as stolen guards and stolen basketball tournaments are lasting rivalries made. So take that, Indiana, and good riddance, Big Ten. Now if only we had our chief back.
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.