Wednesday night's win in West Lafayette signified two things for the Illini: a victory over every Big Ten team this conference season and a chance to make Illinois basketball history, winning the programs sixth outright Big Ten Championship, the first since the days of Harry Combes on the sidelines. Yes, the Illini are guaranteed to have a banner hanging ceremony next year, no matter the outcome of Sunday's game, but without a win on Sunday, that ceremony will leave a bittersweet taste in my mouth.
Not counting this season, the Illini have won three Big Ten Conference Championships in the last six years, but none of the championships were outright. The Illini always shared the title with one of more teams, in fact I think half of the Big Ten shared the 2002 conference championship, or at least it appeared that way. Sharing a title does not diminish the accomplishment, but when you have a chance, to seal an outright title with a win over your tenth straight different Big Ten opponent, it makes sharing one a bittersweet accomplishment.
Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo displayed his emotions on his sleeve after his Spartans tough loss to Wisconsin stating that he did not want to "back in" to the Big Ten Championship, and that he was cheering for Illinois to pull it out. Now, the term "backing in" to the title is a term that many people feel Izzo used incorrectly, but he wanted to win the Big Ten Championship with a win, not an Illinois loss. The feeling of backing into a title will subside with the years, but when you have a chance to seize something you have not had in fifty years, you have to grasp it.
As a fan, I will be disappointed if Illinois does not win Sunday afternoon in Columbus. The regular season championship for the 2004 Big Ten season will definitely leave a bittersweet taste in my mouth.
NO OUTRIGHT BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIPS SINCE 1952?
1952! Let me repeat that, 1952! How can a program like Illinois not win more than one outright Big Ten Championship since 1952? The Fighting Illini have had many very good teams in the last fifty years, but none of them were able to win an outright Big Ten Championship, why is that? I mean, the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox at least won division titles in baseball during this time period, but the Illini could not win an outright Big Ten Championship. I am just shocked at how that can be.
The names Harv Schmidt, Dave Downey, Skip Thoren, Don Freeman, Eddie Johnson, Derek Harper, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, and Kendall Gill never won an outright Big Ten Championship while they were at Illinois. It is simply mind boggling. The Illinois basketball program is one I hold in high regard as one of the major programs in the nation, yet the program has not been able to win an outright conference championship in over fifty years. Why is that?
The players on this team have a chance to do something in Champaign that has not been done in 52 years. With a win in Columbus, they will put their names along side Illinois greats like Andy Phillip and the rest of the Whiz Kids, Dike Eddleman, and Johnny "Red" Kerr. These are the names of great Illinois players that have won outright Big Ten Championships, and now every single player on this year's basketball team can have their name etched right next to these greats.
History awaits every member of this team when they step onto the court in Columbus, OH to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes. This Illini fan will be in Columbus wearing orange, hoping, wishing, and praying Fighting Illini basketball history is made in this, the 99th year of Illinois basketball.
- Luther Head has really stepped up his game for Illinois in the past month. All of the early season struggles that Luther went through are now over, and he is using his athleticism on the court to be a bother for opponents on both sides of the ball. He is playing stellar defense, and is a definite scoring threat from the wing for the Illini. Luther has finally elevated his play to the level Illinois fans were expecting last season, and this year.
- Lost in the shuffle of the great guard play for the Illini of the past month, has been the emergence of Nick Smith as a threat. When opposing defenses zone Illinois, Nick Smith is Illinois' ultimate zone buster, not a shooter like Rich McBride. He knows where to find the hole in the defense, and what to do when he gets the ball, be it shooting the fifteen footer, or finding the open man with the ball.
I will admit it now, I hate Bo Ryan. It is that simple, I cannot stand this man, and if it were not for Temple's John Chaney he would be the head coach in all of college basketball that most resembles his school's mascot.
After watching ESPN's The Season, my feelings for Bo Ryan have gone from indifference to those of pure unadulterated hatred. Despite him telling Zach Morley to "get a haircut", Bo Ryan just has to be the easiest man to hate in the Big Ten. His teams are so good they never foul, it is just the rest of the Big Ten that does that. His teams show no compassion, and will put exclamation points on blowout victories with their starters, just ask Tom Izzo, Tommy Amaker, and Gene Keady about the Badgers late-game antics.
- As I am sure all of you know, next year will be the official centennial celebration of Illinois basketball. I have been doing a lot of talking to people about the history of Illinois basketball thanks to this celebration, and the more and more I read the more and more interested I get. In case you did not know, a book is being written by Jared Gelfond and the Champaign News Gazette's Loren Tate, and I cannot wait to see a look at the history of Illinois basketball that was not available before. It will be interesting to read anecdotes of some of the great games in Illinois history, including the 1979 Michigan State game, the Nick Anderson shot against Indiana, and even some of the more recent memorable games like Sean Harrington to Marcus Griffin for a win over Wisconsin in Assembly Hall.