The Flyin' Illini Return

Members of Lou Henson's signature team return to Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois coach John Groce rarely alters the routine the night before a game, especially during the conference season.

But Groce deviated from the plan with nearly every member of the 1989 Flyin' Illini Final Four team in town this weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of all those accomplishments.

He took his players to a private gathering Friday night to meet with the Illinois legends in place of the regular meal at Groce's home.

Junior guard Tracy Abrams anticipated the chance to hang out with a group like that, saying it would offer a special and humbling experience.

"I know those guys got a banner hanging up in the State Farm Center," Abrams said. "That speaks volumes for our program. They paved the way. It's an honor just to give those guys respect, and it's an honor just to be here now wearing that uniform that those guys played in."

Every player except Nick Anderson is expected to be on hand for Saturday's game against Penn State and will be honored along with Coach Lou Henson at halftime.

Groce has repeatedly stated the '89 team and Henson's bright orange blazer were among the first items that came to mind when he accepted the head coach position in the spring of 2012.

"They were so exciting to watch," Groce said. "They played so hard, they were athletic, they made plays, you could tell they played well together, and getting to know a lot of those guys after I've gotten the job, they're close. They're really close. You can tell that they're really connected, and so that part is going to be neat having those guys back here."

Groce couldn't name a favorite player from that team. Instead, he raved about Kenny Battle's vicious dunks.

"Those things were unbelievable," Groce said. "Yeah, sick. I remember those."

And he recalled how skilled Anderson was. Above all though, Groce wouldn't zero in on one particular player above the others because the sum of the parts was most impressive to him.

"I really remember all of them, and that's unique," Groce said. "I remember that team vividly."

No player on the current roster was born when the Illini took flight for that special season. That's not to say those guys haven't heard and seen plenty, though. Groce has shown video highlights to stress the importance of tradition. And Illinois natives like Abrams and senior Joe Bertrand grew up hearing stories.

"I know my mom use to talk about them and how fun they were to watch," Bertrand said.

"I didn't think athleticism was that crazy back then," Abrams added.

Abrams was half-joking of course. But he was serious about picking the brain of as many components of the '89 squad as possible. He planned to use Friday night's meeting as a chance for growth.

"Most of the time when I talk to guys who have won, I try to talk about things off the court," he said. "… That connection is big."

It's those potential conversations that make deviation from the customary schedule worthwhile.

"I'm looking forward to those guys being around our players as well," Groce said. "Obviously those guys are winners."

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