So Close, but Yet So Far

A look at the near-misses, close-calls and heartache of the Illini under Lou Henson in the NCAA Tournament during the 1980's. <br><br> Lou Henson is approaching 800 wins, yet seldom gets mentioned as one of the all-time great coaches. Why? The first thing his detractors generally want to talk about is that he wasn't a "good tournament coach". Well he did go to the Final Four with 2 different teams, but on the other hand he is just 19-21 in the NCAA Tournament including 12-12 with Illinois.

But what makes a good coach suddenly become a bad one in the tournament? Ask 20 people that question, and you'll get 20 different answers.

What I'm going to do here is go through every Illini tournament appearence from 1981-1990. During this 10 year period, the Illini under Henson made 9 appearences in the NCAA's. They lost to a lower seeded team 7 times. Also out of the 9 appearences, 8 times they were eliminated by 5 points or less, the other time by 8.

1981-1985


1981
Lou took over the program in 1975, and by the '80-'81 season had things going the right way and after finishing 3rd in the NIT the previous season, big things were expected. Led by Eddie Johnson and Mark Smith, the Illini went 12-6 in the Big 10, 20-7 overall good for 3rd place, and a 4 seed in the West Region.

Other Big 10 teams in the Tournament: Indiana won the league going 14-4 Iowa went 13-5, both got 3 seeds. IU won the tournament, Iowa was upset by Witchita St in Witchita when Lute Olson in a tie game, used a timeout he didn't have.

What Happened: The Illini were sent to Pauley Pavillion for the sub-regional. As a 4 seed they got a 1st Round bye, and took on 5th seeded Wyoming who deafeted Howard in the 1st Round. They just did beat Wyoming 67-65 on 2 late Free Throws. We haven't won a 4-5 Matchup since. In the other game in the bracket, 8-seed Kansas State pulled a stunning upset over #1 ranked and #1 seeded Oregon State, presenting a huge opportunity for the Illini. Unfortunately the Illini fell behind early and wasn't able to overtake K-State, losing 57-52 in Salt Lake City.

Aftermath: K-State lost the Elite 8 game to North Carolina 82-68. The Illini probably wouldn't have beaten Carolina either, still it was a crushing loss for me, as I had no idea at the time how many more chances we would get in the coming years. There had been a ton of upsets that year led by #1 seed DePaul losing to St Joe's just minutes before Oregon.St's loss, so although I was sure the Illini would beat KSU, nationally, it wasn't exactly stunning that KSU could also beat the 4 seed.

1983
After an NIT appearence in '82, the Illini had a better than expected year in '82-'83, going 11-7 in the Big ten to finish in a 3 way tie for 2nd with Purdue and Ohio State. Derek Harper had a super year, The Illini had a 4 man Freshman class with Bruce Douglas, Efrem Winters, Doug Altenberger, and Scott Meents. Douglas and Winters started and played well, Altenberger and Meents got reserve minutes. They beat Minnesota the last game of the season at Assembly Hall in double OT on a long 3 point bomb as time expired by Derek Harper. The Illini were considered a bubble team that needed to win that game to assure themselves a bid. They got a 7 seed, but back before the tournament expanded to 64, the at-large bids didn't go much further than that.

Other Big Ten teams in the tourney: Indiana who won the B10 (and a 2 seed), OSU (a 3), and Iowa (a 7) lost in the Sweet 16, Purdue (a 5) lost in Round 2.

What Happened: The Illini were sent to Boise, Idaho to play Utah, who upset the Illini 52-49. The Illini fell behind by a small amount early and stayed behind, never being able to get over the hump.

Aftermath: Utah also upset UCLA, beating them 67-61, before losing to eventual National Champ N.C. State 75-56 in Odgen. All in all, it was a good year, and with Derek Holcomb being the only Senior starter, hopes were going to be high the following year.

1984
Expectations were simmered down quite a bit when Derek Harper turned pro, and Anthony Welch was lost for the year. Career-long bench warmer Quinn Richardson was inserted into the lineup at Guard along with Douglas. Altenberger moved into the lineup, joining Winters and big George Montgomery.

The Illini had an unbelieveable season, not losing until Kentucky beat then at the buzzer at Assembly Hall on Christmas Eve afternoon, then going an unexpected 15-3 in Big Ten play sharing the title with Purdue. They were 24-4 overall going into the tournament, with the 4 losses being to Kentucky, Overtime losses on the road to Indiana and Michigan, and a narrow loss to Purdue in West Lafayette (Illinois had beaten Purdue by 22 in C-U).

The Illini were given a 2 seed in the MidEast.

Other Big ten teams in the tournament: This would be the last year the Big ten got just 3 teams in until this year. Purdue got a 3 seed, but lost to Memphis State in Memphis by 18 in the 2nd Round. Indiana made the Final 8 after upsetting Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the Sweet 16, but then got upset themselves by 7 seeded Virginia by 2 points. Michigan just missed the field.

What Happened: The Illini were sent to Milwaukee, and received a first round bye. In the 2nd Round they played Villanova defeating them 64-56. They then went to Lexington where they topped Len Bias and 3rd seeded Maryland 72-70, falling behind by 10 in the 1st half, only to lead by as many as 10 in the 2nd half, before hanging on to win. Though the final margin was 2, it wasn't the type of game that went down to the last shot, it was a tight game, but not a 2 point game.

When Kentucky got by Louisville in the other regional semi, it set up a rematch from earlier in the season only this time in Lexington. Efrem Winters had gotten injured in the Illini win (his ankle?-I forget), and between that and the game being in Lexington, no one gave the Illini a chance.

Winters would play, but wasn't 100%, but yet the Illini stayed in the game. They had one lead at 4-3, and tied them once at 36-36, bu! t never trailed by many. Nonetheless the Illini couldn't make it over the hump, in part because of terrible officiating. They trailed just 52-50, with just 20 seconds to go, when having trapped a Kentucky guard in the backcourt, were called for a foul, when it could have been either traveling or a 5 second call. They made both FT's to make it 54-50 with now 13 seconds left. As tough a task as that was for the Illini, it was made tougher by the fact that due to the officiating, UK had been called for just 2 fouls the whole half! Well you can guess what happened next. UK continually "unintentionaly fouled" the Illini as they brought the ball up the court, chewing up time. Finally they got called on it, but back then an intentional foul was 2 shots, but you didn't get the ball. Altenberger made one of two, but the Illini got the rebound, and scored before the buzzer, but wasn't counted (wouldn't have mattered anyhow). The final was 54-51.

Aftermath: Kentucky went on to the Final 4, losing to eventual champ Georgetown 53-40. Ewing and Georgetown went on to beat Akeem(no H back then) Olajawon and Houston for the Title. During the off-season the NCAA passed a rule stating a team couldn't play on it's Home Court in Regional Semifianl or Finals. When a rule gets changed because of something that happened as a result of you losing a game, it's a safe bet to say you're were shafted. Right?

What If: What if the game had been anywhere in the world but Lexington? What if Winters had been 100%? What if Harper hadn't turned pro? We'll never know.

1985
After the '84 season, expectations were high as the Illini were losing just Quinn Richardson, while getting back Anthony Welch. They were ranked #2 in the pre-season. They lost twice in the pre-season, to a pretty good UAB team in Alaska, and to a very good Loyola-Chicago team led by Alfredrick Hughes in the then-named Rosemont Horizon. They started the Big Ten season with upset losses at Minnesota and Iowa, won 5 straight, before losing an embarrasing 54-34 game to Purdue. They steadied the ship to finish 12-6 n the leauge (includingan 86-43 payback over Purdue) good for 2nd in the leauge, behind 16-2 Michigan. They received a 3 seed in the East Region.

Other Big Ten teams in the Tournament: Michigan got a 1seed, but were upset by 8 seed and eventual National Champ Villanova, after almost losing the 1-16 game. OSU got a 4 seed and also lost in the 2nd Round. Purdue(6), Iowa (8), and Michigan St(10) all lost in the 1st Round.

What Happened: With the field expanding to 64, Illinois had a first round game with Northeastern, winning 76-57, after leading by as many as 29. Georgia, the 6th seed won their game setting up a 2nd Round matchup in Atlanta. This was no problem as Illinois after leading by 20+ much of the game, dismantled Georgia 74-58. Their next destinaton was Providence to play Georgia Tech and Mark Price.

This was considered a toss-up game with Georgia Tech being favored by a point. The game was tied at halftime at 29, but in the 2nd half, the Illini offense stalled, and they fell behind by 15. Altenberger caught fire however and the Illini got back to within 55-51 late in the 2nd half, but Altenberger fouled out, and Georgia Tech went on to win 61-53.

Aftermath: For the second year in a row, the team that eliminated the Illini got eliminated by Georgetown, as Georgia Tech was defeated 60-54.

This was the least dramatic tourney run for the Illini during this stretch, they didn't get upset, there was no controversy. They played ou their seed.

WHAT WE HAVE SO FAR
This part wasn't such a bad stretch. We got robbed of a Final Four appearance in '84, we were upset twice during this stretch, we had underacheived during the season in '84-'85, so Henson was being dogged in the media for that. But we had made 3 Sweet 16's including a Final 8, but no one could have guessed how the next 5 years would end for us.

1986-1987


1986
Hopes again were high going into the '85-'86 season for the Illini, although expectations were temprered a bit after sub-par seasons from Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters, and although the previous year they had finished 26-9, it had been a little disappointing considering what the hopes had been. Enthusiam was tempered further when Doug Altenberger hurt his knee and was forced to red-shirt. The only starter they had lost in the previous season was George Montgomery who had suffered a season -ending injury late in the year, but was replaced by Ken Norman who had played very well. Tony Wysinger stepped into the starting lineup to join Douglas, Winters, Norman, and Anthony Welch.

The Illini lost twice in the preseason to Oklahoma in Hawaii, and an upset at Tennessee. After winning their Big ten opener, they lost 3 straight to Iowa at Home, and on the road to Michigan(after wiping out a 20 point lead), and at Michigan State. Though a Big 10 title was impossible, the Illini rallied to win 12 of the next 16 (including a non-conference win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta), earning themselves an 11-7 Big Ten record, 21-9 overall good for a tie for 4th in the leauge. They received a 4 seed in the Southeast region, in the subregional in Charlotte.

Other Big Ten teams in the tournament: Michigan again won the Big Ten, receiving a 2 seed, and again getting upset in the 2nd Round this time to Iowa State. Indiana got a 3 seed, and was upset in the 1st Round by Cleveland State. Michigan State, in spite of finishing ahead of the Illini and sweeping them, got a 5 seed making it to the Sweet 16, losing a controversial game to Kansas. Purdue drew a 6 seed and had to play LSU in Baton Rouge, where they lost in Double OT (you could still play on your home court in the first 2 rounds). Iowa got an 11 seed and lost in the 1st Round to N.C.State.

What happened: The Illini drew Fairfield, routing them 75-51, setting up a 2nd round game with 5th seed Alabama. If they were to win that, they'd likely have a rematch from 2 years previous with 1st seed Kentucky. The Illini though got off to a terrible start trailing 21-8 at one point. They would chip away at the lead, catching Alabama early in the 2nd Half. The lead see-sawed back and forth throughout the rest of the game. With the score tied 56-56, the Illini got the ball with a 10 second differental between the game and shot clock. With about 30 seconds left, Winters tried an ill-advised turnaround jumper, which he air-balled, Alabama got the rebound, and called timeout, setting up for the final shot. They held the ball before penetrating and scoring at the buzzer, winning 58-56. Henson thought traveling should have been called on the last play, but the refs din't agree.

What might have happened had they won: The Illini indeed would have had another shot at Kentucky.A few experts thought they caould pull the upset in such an event, but of course they would have been underdogs.Had they pulled the upset however, only 11-seed LSU would have been between them and the Final 4. In all likelyhood, the season would have ended in the Sweet 16.

Aftermath: It's always disappointing to lose on a last second shot, but this was the end of the careers of Douglas, Winters, Welch, and Scott Meents. After the '84 season, it seemed that more would come of this group than what they produced. Douglas and Winters were thought of as disappointments, because they never matched their Sophomore years. Years later, people now appreciate the careers they had and what they accomplished, instead of what they didn't.

1987
This was the transition year betweem the Douglas/Winters group and the Flyin' Illini. Though they lost 4 Seniors,they had Norman and Wysinger back from the previous year, and would be getting Altenberger, who had recovered fully from the knee injury. But this was also Stephen Bardo and Kendall Gill's Freshman years, Lowell Hamilton was back for his Sophomore year. Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson were on campus and practicing with the team, but weren't eligible. Battle because he had transferred from NIU, Anderson because he was a Prop 48, as was Erwin Small.

They again lost twice in the pre-season, to North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and to Loyola in the Horizon. The Big Ten season was excruciating. The conference was very very tough that year, with Indiana, Purdue,Iowa, and Illinois all being ranked in the top 10-12 all year. They won their 1st 4 games, then lost to #2 ranked Iowa in C-U, after leading by 22 points in the 2nd Half. They lost in Double Overtime at Purdue, who forced the extra Overtime when Doug Lee hit a 3 pointer to re-tie the game. They lost in the next OT when they hit the winning free throw with 0:00 showing on the clock, the Purdue bench thinking the game was over stormed the court, but got called for a T when there was actually a fraction of a second left, but Altenberger missed the ensuing free throw. They lost the rematch in CU, when they blew a 16 point 2nd half lead, eventually losing in overtime.

They finished the Big Ten year at 13-5, with the other losses being close games to Indiana in Bloomington by 3 and the rematch at Iowa by 5, after leading by 1 in the last 2 minutes. Eventual National Champ Indiana and Purdue tied for the title at 15-3, Iowa ended up in 3rd at 14-4. Had the Illini won the 3 games they had in their hands, of course they would have been 16-2 (had they won every close game they'd of gone 18-0, but let's be realistic).

Other Big ten teams in the tourney: Indiana as a 1 seed, of course won the National title. Iowa was given a 2 seed and made it to the Elite 8, blowing a 19 point lead to UNLV. Purdue, inexplicably was given just a 3 seed, they were knocked off by Florida in the 2nd Round. Michigan and Ohio State made the tourney as 9 seeds. both losing in the 2nd Round.

Outlook: The Illini were a 3 seed, and were sent to Birmingham in the Southeast Region to play Austin Peay.If they won, they would play either Providence or UAB (playing on their own floor). Georgetown was the 1 seed, Alabama the 2. It was considered the easiest region, and many people(including myself) thought the Illini would win the region and go to the Final 4.

What happened: To this day, I don't know what happened. The game went back and forth, with the game being tied at 32 at Halftime. This is when Dick Vitale made his famous promise to stand on his head if A-P won(CBS didnt do the 1st round games back then). In the second half, the Illini couldn't pull away. Every time it looked like they might, 6'8''260 lb Daryl Bedford would nail a 3. This guy had a body that looked like Shelly Clark's, and shot back on his heels, kind of a set shot. With 10-15 seconds left, and the Illini down a point, Wysinger hit a jump shot, giving the Illini the lead. A-P without calling timeout, brought the ball up, and drove to the far corner, when the Illini seemed to have the man trapped, it looked like things might end up ok, but just then he found Tony raye wide open under the basket, where Norman had to cream him. There were 2 seconds left. Raye was just a 50% foul shooter, but he made both shots, using every part of the rim! The Illini threw the ball to halfcourt, and called timeout. they set up a play with Norman springing open at the top of the key, but he couldn't knock the shot down, and the game ended.

What might have happened: Like I said earlier, I thought they were going to the Final 4, and one game wouldn't have changed my mind. The Final 4 throughout the years is litered with teams that barely escaped a 1st Round upset. Had they made it that far, the 2 seed from the East, Syracuse would have been the matchup, win that, and of course IU would have been there in the Final.

Aftermath: Austin Peay was in the exact same positon against Providence at the end of the game as they were against Illinois with the same FT shooter at the line, with one exception. The score was already tied, and Raye needed just 1 of 2. This time he missed both, and Providence survived in OT, then did what I thought Illinois would do, beating Alabama by 21 points, and Georgetown by 15, before losing to Syracuse. This was Rick Pitino's coming out party, and he was regarded as a young genious, while Big Dumb Lou was looked at as an idiot. Things could have and should have been so, so, so much different.



1988-1990


1988
Not as much was expected out of the Illini after losing 3 starters from the previous year. Stephen Bardo had moved into the starting lineup the previous year, and played well. Kendall Gill now moved into the lineup as well, but wouldn't play at the same level he would the next 2 years. Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle, now eligible, started and become the 2 best players on the team. Jens Kujawa started most of the time at Center, while Lowell Hamilton got a few starts as well. Glynn Blackwell also got quality minutes. Marcus Liberty was on campus but ineligble as a Prop 48.

The Illini went to a tough tournament in Hawaii, losing to Villanova by 1 in the semi's, before beating eventual National Champion Kansas (had they beaten Villanova they would have played Iowa for the title). They lost once more in the pre-season, a Home loss to North Carolina. After winning 4 of the first 6 in Big Ten play, they lost 4 in a row (including a non-conference game at then #1 Arizona), which left them at 4-5 in the Big 10 at the halfway point. But they would come together in the 2nd Half of the Big 10 season, winning 8 of 9, and giving us a preview of what would happen the following year.

They finished 12-6, 22-9 in the regular season, earning them a tie for 3rd place and a 3 seed in the Southeast region.

Other Big Ten teams in the tournament: Purdue won the leauge, getting a 1seed, but was upset in the Sweet 16 by K-State. Michigan(3), and Iowa(5) lost the same night to North Carolina, and Arizona, respectfully. Indiana(4) was upset in the 1st Round by Richmond.

Outlook: The Illini were sent to Cincinnati to play Texas-San Antionio, Villanova was the 6 seed in the region, and would likely play the winner. Oklahoma was the 1 seed in the region, Kentucky was 2.

What Happened: They deafeated UTSA 81-72, in a game where the margin stayed around 10 most of the game. Villanova held up their end, beating 11-seed Arkansas,setting up a rematch from Hawaii.

The game started out poorly, with the Illini falling behind 15-7 after the first 10 minutes or so, but put together an awesome run(23-5) to lead 30-20 at Halftime. The second half started well, the Illini extending to their biggest lead, 36-22. Needless to say,they were in total control of the game. Villanova made some runs, but the Illini generally held them off. Villanova made another run cutting the lead to 4 with about 2 minutes ago, but when Kendall Gill broke the press and scored an old-fashioned 3 point play putting the lead back to 7, it seemed the run would be Villanova's last. Uh-uh. The Illini, still a young team had been a poor foul shooting team all year, and this came back to haunt them this day, as the Illini missed several 1 and 1's (no double-bonus back then), and Villanova came back finally taking the lead by 1 on a long 3 pointer with about 25 seconds to go. The Illini however, got the ball to Kenny Battle, who scored and got fouled with about 1! 2-13 seconds left. Battle missed the FT however, and Villanova worked the ball to Terry Gannon, who was fouled by Gill with 4 seconds to go

Unlike the previous year with tony raye, Gannon was a good FT shooter, and he drilled both. Instead of calling Timeout, Kujawa took the ball out and attempted a long pass which got picked off, and after an intentional foul , Villanova had the win 66-63.

What might have happeneed: The Illini would have played Kentucky, and I think they would have had a good chance (Villanova would go on to beat them), but Oklahoma was looking unstoppable, so the run would have ended there had they beaten UK.

Aftermath: It turns out the Illini had just 1 timeout left, and Lou wanted to set up a play from halfcourt, which is why Jens threw the pass he did. He said it slipped out of his hands. The future looked great for the next year regardless

1989
The Illini had great hope going into the season as just Glynn Blackwell graduated, and Jens chose to return to Germany. Bardo, Gill, Anderson, Battle, and Hamilton would start, with Liberty(now eligible), Small, Larry Smith, and P.J. Bowman off the bench.

The Illini won their first 17 games, as most of you know. They won all 12 pre-season games including wins over eventual NCAA qualifiers Arkansas-LR, Georgia Tech in Hawaii, Missouri, Florida, and a 27 point win at LSU. They won their first 4 in the Big Ten, their 17th win was a Double-overtime thriller at CU in a rematch against Georgia Tech. The next day they found out Kendall Gill would be out an extended period of time with a broken foot he suffered in the game. They lost 3 of the next 4, won 3 in a row, then got killed by Wisconsin in Madison. Gill would be out another 4 games, but the Illini would win all 4 capped off with the dramatic win in Indiana. Gill was back for the last 2 regular season games, blowout wins over Iowa in CU, and Michigan on the road. This gave them a 14-4 record, 27-4 overall. They finished 2nd behind Indiana, but got the 1 seed anyway.

Other Big Ten teams in the tourney: The Big Ten got 5 teams in, and all 5 almost made the Sweet 16 with Iowa(4) losing in the 2nd Round in 2ot to N.C.State. Indiana(2) lost to Seton Hall in the Sweet 16, Minnesota(11) also made the sweet 16 losing to Duke. You know how Michigan did.

Outlook: Many people picked the Illini to win the whole thing of course. Georgetown and Arizona were the top 2 ranked teams, but they would play each other if both made the Final 4.(Georgetown almost lost in the 1st round to Princeton) Syracuse was the 2 seed in the region, Missouri the 3, and Louisville the 4. The Illini were sent to Indianapolis, where they would play McNeese State, if they won then either Pitt or Ball State.

What happened: McNeese St gave them a tough 1st Half, with the Illini going on a 10-0 run to lead by 5 at Halftime. They pushed the lead to as many as 22, before they emptied the bench winning by a not nearly as close as it looked 77-71 with McNeese scoring 5 points in the last 6 seconds. Rick Majerus and Ball State were the next victims 72-60, in a game where the Illini led 26-12 and maintained a 10-15 point lead most of the game. The sweet 16 would be in Minneapolis against Louisville. They were given a scare when Kenny Battle was hurt in practice, and Lowell Hamilton was injured early in the game. The Illini built an early lead, but Louisville came closer and closer before tying the game at 50. Would the Illini fold? Nope. They pulled away winning 83-69, setting up a showdown with Syracuse who had barely defeated Missouri.

Many picked Syracuse to not only win the regional, but the whole tournament. They were led by Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas, and they jumped out to a 13 point 1st half lead. The Illini cut it to 7 by Halftime, then were hot on Syracuse's heels before finally catching them. They had a small lead throughout the last 5 minutes, with Syracuse doing just enough to stay in the game, finally cutting it to 1 with 12-15 seconds left, and putting Battle on the line for a 1 and 1. He sank both, and Syracuse being out of timeouts took the ball down the court, misfiring on the tying 3, and Illinois was in the Final 4 with the 89-86 win. Nick Anderson scored 24 points and grabbed 16 rebounds and was named Outstanding Player of the Midwest regional.

Of course Michigan was the Final 4 opponent. Steve Fisher had taken over when Bill frieder had announced he was leaving for Arizona St, and Bo Schembecler wouldn't let him coach the tournament games. Michigan , after upsetting North Carolina, had destroyed Virginia in the Regional Final, and looked really good doing it, hence the Illini was just a 2 point favorite entering the game.

Well, the game started out well enough with the Illini up 16-8, but Michigan soon caught up, and led at halftime. Michigan led most of the 2nd Half, the Illini never had the lead and the ball, every time they'd get the lead, they couldn't get a stop. Though they weren't playing their best, they weren't playing terribly, they just couldnt get a spurt going thatwould put them in control.

Battle hit a 3 pointer with about 1:45 to go giving the Illini a 79-78 lead. Michigan missed, but got an offensive rebound, scored and fouled to put them ahead 81-79 The Illini tied it, but Michigan was able to hold for the last shot. The play they ran broke down, and ended with their Center Terry Mills taking a 3 pointer, it missed and Sean Higgins got the put-back, giving Michigan the win. The Illini had a second left, but couldnt get a shot, and for the 4th year in a row, they had lost on a last second shot.

What would have happened: No doubt in any of our minds, they would have handled Seton Hall.

Aftermath: The Illini enjoyed a lot of positive press afterword. Henson was finally receiving the accolades he deserved. They would be losing Battle and Hamilton, but with Liberty moving into the lineup, and the Illini getting in coming Freshman Deon Thomas, the future was never brighter. Of course, storm clouds were heading right at us.

1990
Well, Nick Anderson turned pro, and for reasons I won't discuss Deon Thomas had to red-shirt. Andy Kaufman moved into the lineup, as did Erwin Small. Andy Kpedi, and Rodney Jones helped out underneath. key reserve Larry Smith took a red-shirt and started the next year. The Illini were ranked in the top 10 in the preseason. I didn't think they'd be that good, but after sweeping the 10 pre-season games, and winning the Big Ten opener, it looked like they might be. Michigan came in to CU and ended the streak, and after that the Illini had an up and down year, looking great at Home, but not good on the road. A win in Indiana on the last game of the season, in which Gill won the Big Ten scoring title gave the Illini an 11-7 Big ten record, and 21-7 overall. They finished in a tie for 4th, and got a 5 seed, which i thought would be higher.

Other Big Ten teams in the tournament: Michigan State won the Big Ten and got a 1 seed, they needed OT to get by Murray State in the 1st Round, before losing in OT in the Sweet 16 to Georgia Tech. Purdue (2) lost to Texas in the 2nd Round, Michigan(3) was creamed in the 2nd Round by 11-seeded Loyola-Marymount(after the death of Hank Gathers). Minnesota (6) made the Final 8, losing to Georgia Tech. Ohio State (8) lost in the 2nd Round to UNLV.

The outlook: I hated the draw. The Illini were in the Midwest, but in Austin, Texas against Dayton, if they won they'd likely play Arkansas, win that and it'd likely be Oklahoma in Dallas.

What happened: They played poorly throughout, trailing most of the game by as many as 10 in the 2nd Half. They rallied, tying the game at one point, but fell behind once again, and had to start fouling. They got within 2 with 2 seconds left, dayton tried a long passwhich was pickedoff by Freshman Ken Gibson, who let go a shot that missed and wouldn't have counted. The Final was 88-86.

What might have happened if they had won: They would have had a tough 2nd Round game with Arkansas. I had no illusions about another Final 4 run, but if they had beaten Arkansas, they'd have been the top seed left in the region, as the top 3 all lost.

Aftermath: They wouldn't play in the tournament for 3 more years, and wouldn't seeded as high for another 8.

CLOSING THOUGHTS
Well, what do you think? I'll tell you what I think. A lot of teams suffer upsets in the tourney, but I think the 2 years the Illini played well in the tourney--'84, and '89 actually hurt Lou's reputation the most, and I'll tell you why. If the '84 run would have ended in the Final 4, and the '89 run in a Championship, it would have been enough to offset the upsets in most people's eyes. Of course '81, and possibly '88 they could have made the Elite 8, and I'll always think they had a Final 4 run in them had they gotten past Austin Peay in '87.

One thing you can't deny is that although in most of these losses, the Illini could have played better, they never layed an egg. They were in every game. At one point they lost 4 years in a row in the last seconds. Think about that. After reading this ,I hope you understand that while Lou will never be remembered as a great tournament coach, he really didn't miss by much.

Notes: I did have some notes I found on-line to help me with the exact scores and records and seeds that helped me. The games themselves though, were by memory. I don't have any tapes, and I didnt have any clippings to look at. I found some stories on-line that helped me with some opposing names, like the Austin Peay players for example, but in some cases names were left out. I didn't know who made the winning Free Throws for us in the '81 Wyoming game, the winning shot for Alabama in '86, the Syracuse player who missed the last shot in '89.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

As always -- GO ILLINI!!!

Illini Inquirer Top Stories